Rock god and Bluegrass star come up with another winner.
Coming just 14 years after the award-winning and double platinum-selling ‘Raising Sand’, one certainly can’t accuse Robert Plant and Alison Krauss of cashing in on that album’s success. Indeed, so great was the gap that when news of ‘Raise The Roof’ was announced it was greeted with as much astonishment as jubilation.
‘Raising Sand’, along with the soundtrack to ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, is one of the high watermarks of modern-day Americana, at least in terms of sales and awards. The unlikely pairing of Plant and Krauss was a winner, their voices working so well together, and the song selection was quite exquisite -two Gene Clark covers sent his fans into paroxysms of delight. Beavering away behind the duo of course was the man who had also steered the O Brother soundtrack, T Bone Burnett, and his contribution cannot be overestimated.
The question has to be asked – Is ‘Raise The Roof’ merely ‘Raising Sand’, Volume 2? Well, it is and it isn’t. The trio (Plant, Krauss and Burnett), despite the 14 year gap, do seem to have picked up from where they left off. The stellar cast of musicians are still in place (including guitarist Marc Ribot, drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Dennis Crouch) while Bill Frisell, Buddy Miller and David Hidalgo are added for extra measure. A listen to the vibrant rockabilly of ‘Can’t Let Go’ might lead you to think you’ve put the earlier disc on by mistake. There’s also a Plant showcase, ‘High And Lonesome’, written by Plant and Burnett, which serves to remind one of ‘Nothing’ on ‘Raising Sand’, another song where Krauss seems to have sat it out, allowing Plant to move into Band Of Joy Mode. In addition, The Everly’s get another outing although it has to be said that the pearlescent rendition of ‘The Price Of Love’ here eclipses their version of ‘Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)’ on the earlier disc.
However, ‘Raise The Roof’, overall, comes across as a more nuanced album. In part, this is down to the song selections. In addition to forgotten blues and soul gems, Plant’s affinity with UK folk music is given an airing, resulting in two of the most successful songs. Bert Jansch’s ‘It Don’t Bother Me’ positively glistens and gleams with Jeff Taylor’s Dolceola adding a delicious mid-sixties folk exotica sound, resulting in a fairly glorious amalgam of Pentangle and Jefferson Airplane. Diving deeper into this territory, the pair tackle Anne Briggs’ ‘Go Your Way’ and transform her stripped-back bare folk musings into a full-blown bustle in a hedgerow with Plant perfectly capturing the song’s dynamics as Krauss adds her excellent harmonies. The difference is chalk and cheese and while we would always recommend that listeners head to Briggs in the first instance, Plant and Krauss do breathe new life into the song in quite a splendid manner. It’s interesting to note that the pair swap gender on these songs with Plant singing the Briggs’ number while Krauss takes on Jansch.
Other songs are not so much reimagined as given a very respectful reading and, with the wealth of talent on show, these readings are quite sublime. Krauss excels when she inhabits a Peggy Lee-like kittenish persona on the slow and sexy slink that is Allan Toussaint’s ‘Trouble With My Lover’ while ‘Searching For My Love’ finds Plant singing in best Tamla Motown style while Krauss is the perfect girl chorus line up. ‘Last Kind Words Blues’ limps along splendidly, reminding one of Ry Cooder’s reclamations of old blues song while Krauss commands attention on the exquisite take of Merle Haggard’s ‘Going Where The Lonely Go’ and on the honeysuckle refrains of Hank Williams’ ‘My Heart Would Know’. On both of these, Plant’s is the harmony voice, coming in on the refrains, a perfect counter to Krauss’s crystal clear singing.
The album opens and closes with two contemporary covers. Krauss is on record as saying that when she was sent Calexico’s ‘Quattro (World Drifts In)’, she knew that she and Plant had to sing it. It’s an oddly restrained reading of the song, one which fits finely into the overall feel here but they fail to capture the full cinematic force of the original. They close with Lucinda Williams’ ‘You Can’t Rule Me’ and here they do manage to capture the gutbucket blues of the original, to the extent that this reviewer prefers this version.
Plant and Krauss (and Burnett) are to be congratulated for this endeavour. On its own, it’s an impressive listen and if it sends listeners scurrying to Spotify to listen to Jansch or Briggs or Haggard, then all to the good. It will probably sell by the bucket load due to the starred names but, deep down, this reviewer could come up with a list of albums as good as or better which have been released this year and which are unlikely to end up in Christmas stockings in a few weeks time. But then, that’s showbiz.
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