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Robert Plant's 2007 collaboration with bluegrass star Alison Krauss was a remarkable album that introduced a whole swathe of music lovers to a new genre. A couple of years later the former Led Zeppelin frontman has produced something equally as stunning but instead of introducing rock fans to bluegrass, this time could well be pulling country fans the other way.
For many years Led Zep fans wanted to know whether the band would ever reform; it seemed to cloud whatever Plant did and, in my opinion, his solo material was never as widely appreciated as it should have been. There was almost a belief that Bob was merely killing time until the inevitable happened. For his latest project, Plant has chosen to bill himself as Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, the Band of Joy being the name of a band he was in before Led Zeppelin; this says to me that he wants listeners to approach this album, also entitled "Band of Joy", from the point of view that Zep never happened.
In the Band of Joy Plant has surrounded himself with some of America's top musicians and songwriters - from the country/Americana genre, that is. There's a modest but dedicated Americana audience in the UK who will know these performers and appreciate why Plant is working with them, but in the States these guys are really well known and in American terms, this is essentially a "supergroup" - an edgy Travelling Wilburys, if you will.
The album is a collection of covers but an eclectic one and, even for those familiar with some of the numbers, the interpretations are startlingly original. I've hinted that this is a country album but in fact there is a brilliant variety of genres among the songs which are loosely woven together by the style of the vocals and the choice of instruments that have imbued rock, gospel, folk and blues with a country tinge.
The opening track "Angel Dance" is arguably the catchiest and melodic number on the album yet anyone who didn't know the song would be hard put to guess that it was Los Lobos who originally recorded it. The song has an edgy bass line and drum beat but the evocative mandolin melody is wonderfully infectious. As the refrains kick in there are one or two trademark exclamations, well known to anyone familiar with LZ, but this isn't representative of the album as a whole. In fact Plant is rather like an athlete who, as he gets older, abandons the sprints in favour of the longer distances; few, now, are the falsetto wailings and Plant has found a more mellow but no less dramatic vocal style which works brilliantly with the folky tracks in particular.
Richard Thompson's "House of Cards" is given the Band of Joy treatment next and it's a real ensemble piece with Buddy Miller's tremendous guitar playing really shining through. Miller has been around for years but he's never been busier, in demand as for his guitar playing as much as his ability as a talented producer (his production of Solomon Burke's 2006 Nashville album is tremendous).
Interestingly, the album includes two number by slowcore band Low, a band who are certainly an acquired taste. The Band of Joy cover "Silver Rider" and "Monkey", both very successfully, bringing something new to both songs. For me one of the real joys of "Silver Rider" is hearing how versatile a vocalist Patty Griffin can be. Usually her voice is pure country and while I don't find it unpleasant at all, she doesn't often come across as subtle; on this number and on "House of Cards" her voice fits beautifully with Plant's vocals. "Monkey" is my favourite track on the album. Miller uses plenty of effects to give his guitar a really dark and sinister tone while Plant and Griffin counteract with their uplifting clear voices to provide the light to his shade.
"The Only Sound that Matters" gives the multi-talented Darrell Scott a chance to shine with his exquisite pedal steel which gives this simple ballad a gentle country edge. "Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday" is a traditional song that has been given a new lease of life here with a lovely banjo part and the opportunity for Plant to throw in a few Zepesque wails. The lyrics fit in perfectly with the generally dark theme of this collection of songs as a whole: "Cindy got religion/ She had it once before/ She spilt it on a Saturday/ Upon a hard wood floor". Scott's banjo gets another outing on the final track "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down", an atmospheric interpretation of a traditional poem. if I had to pick out one musician who stands out among this noble company it would be Scott; whether playing pedal steel mandolin, guitar or banjo he gives the music a distinct and evocative sound.
"Central Two-o-nine" is one of those brilliant Americana tribute to the railroad numbers and has an evocative bluesy direction while the upbeat Beatles-eque "You Can't Buy My Love" is completely different, taking us firmly into rock and roll and giving Patty Griffin a chance to do what she does best - really belt it out.
Twelve tracks, forty-seven minutes of sheer magic. It's over too quickly but demands listen after listen. Thoroughly recommended.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Angel Dance
2 House Of Cards
3 Central Two-O-Nine
4 Silver Rider
5 You Can't Buy My Love
6 Falling in Love Again
7 The Only Sound That Matters
9 Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday
10 Harm's Swift Way
11 Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
12 Even This Shall Pass Away