Robert Plant and Alison Krauss Reunite for ‘Raise the Roof’
Legendary Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and veteran bluegrass sensation Alison Krauss joined forces in 2007, along with producer T Bone Burnett, for an acclaimed collaborative album, “Raising Sands,” on which they reimagined classic songs from various genres, sharing vocal duties. The undeniable natural chemistry between these two was something many struggled to wrap their heads around, but it’s not so surprising given the overlap of their musical tastes. The two met, of course, at a Lead Belly tribute concert, and the meeting of minds led naturally to the making of music. Zeppelin was, after all, essentially a blues band that dramatically amped up the sound and put their own spin on it. Krauss is a star, with 27 Grammys to her name, in a relatively insular genre based on roots music. The songs that she and Plant cover tend to be earthy fare, rustic recordings of folk traditions. and gritty, blues-informed material. Classic R&B and country are a natural next step, and anything else they might fancy could be thrown into the mix. The two have reunited after fourteen years for a followup, “Raise the Roof,” which draws from similar source material, with a couple of exceptions. The new album is full of fresh takes and rechannelings of spirit from rich archival selections that thrive on the matching of musical instincts. This time, the only difference is that the new set of songs extends more often than the last into edgier, otherworldly sounds and synergies
The first song Plant and Krauss tackle is “Quattro (World Drifts In),” by Tuscan, Arizona’s Calexico, a current indie rock outfit known for its particularly Southwestern desert sounds and world music incorporations. It’s the only song by a contemporary artist that makes the album, but it makes sense that Plant and Krauss would take after it. Calexico’s song is both rustic and ethereal. A strumming pulse builds into a dynamic interplay of shifting layers, over which wispy vocals hover. Plant and Krauss reduce the arrangement to its core elements, define the structure with new melodic markers, and bulk up the sound with heavier guitars. More notably, they carve sinuous harmonies out of the meager vocal melody, and sing their parts in fuller-bodied voices, adding new dimension to the compacted core, and sculpting a sturdy song from a relative abstraction.
The classic reworkings begin with the The Everly Brothers’ “The Price of Love,” which is slowed down and spaced out for a desert sprawl that trudges along as Kraus sings the lyrics with a serenity worlds apart from the hurried original, while Plant mellows the mix out further with hushed utterances. Anne Briggs’ skeletal folk song “Go Your Way” is given a classic rock transformation, with the fingerpicked guitar work replaced by a distorted two-chord figure that drives a full band effort. Plant voices the lyrics with what might be best described as generic alternative rock energy, making for a rather odd aesthetic transformation, although one well-executed.
Plant and Krauss’ take on Alain Toussant’s “Trouble.” originally recorded by Betty Harris, preserves the original, iconic bass line, but slows the track down and adds delay to the drums and guitars. The song beat in flickering flashes, and Krauss sings with a coy cool, to the end that the song comes to sound more like “Fever” than the original. Bobby Moore’s “Searching For My Baby” gets a similar treatment, loosened and tempered to a easy pace and smooth finish, with some of louder ringing guitars recasting the classic R&B stylings as rock. Plant retains a spectre of Moore’s rasp in his solo singing, but switches to a hushed gesture whenever Krauss chimes in gently. Randy Week’s “Can’t Let Go” is dramatically overhauled, reimagining the raucous blues rock as a minimal mix of subdued surf rock and syncopated rhythms. Plant and Krauss split the vocal into parallel curves and synchronize with effortless cool.
The band untangle the intricate lines from Bret Jamnsch’s guitar work on “It Don’t Bother Me,” and trace the tune in clean lines that multiply and vibrate, approaching distinctly Eastern stylings, much like those that informed the original work. Krauss rounds off and fleshes out the vocal melodies with subtle folk affectations and exotic vibrato flourishes, with Plant joining in with a faint, breathy accompaniment. The entrancing musical designs and concerted singalongs both fit the enlightenment that the song describes, with everything from “what you see,” and “what you do,” to “who I am” and “what I do” prompting the titular refrain. “You Led Me to the Wrong,” originally by Ola Belle Reed is a highlight with an especially rootsy arrangement that reimagines but retains the original while retaining its spirit. A bewitching fiddle weaves through a twangy rhythmic conveyance that gradually picks up momentum, tracing fanciful figures that mesh magically with Plant’s melodies, until tambourines enter and spur on more frenzied fiddling. Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues” is given another evocative treatment with fiddle, banjo, and mandolin. Krauss stretches WIley’s vocal into slightly jazzier shapes, and the dynamic instrumental interplay makes the concerted shapes she and Plant form especially thrilling.
“Going Where the Lonely Go,“ by Merle Haggard, stands out as a pure country song, and is covered true to form. Krauss takes the lead and preserves its tone, channeling the spirit of the original in a smoother, sharper recording that abounds with pedal steel. “High and Lonesome” is the sole original composition that makes the album, although it happens to be a decidedly rootsy number, with lyrics modeled after folk traditions. Plant sings about traveling “down to the river,” “up on the mountain,” and “in the wild words / with lion and the dove,” all along insisting, “I must find my love.” The colorful track features fanciful fiddling, handclap splatters, and a portentous stomp that eventually finds the speaker “lost out on the ocean,” merely wondering, “Does she still think of me?” The song could as easily celebrate the persistence of infatuation as lampoon the destructive potential of love. Finally, Pops Staples’ “Somebody Was Watching Over Me” is given a muscular retrofitting with a driving guitar riff and a more hypnotic groove than the original’s. It’s an especially classic rock reworking, with additional guitars filling out the space between the chugging riffage with bluesy accents, alongside an intrusive stride piano. Plant’s and Krauss’ voices dance gracefully and eventually fixate on the titular refrain, driving it home with meditative repetition in an ending that encapsulates the convergence and coordination of musical instincts at the core of the project.
In addition to the immediate appeal of its dynamic duo, “Raise the Roof” stands out as a statement about the continuum of music. Krauss and Plant take inspiration from a colorful selection of source material that extends back to relatively alien sounds and includes a rich mix of classic signifiers, era-specificities, and insular stylings. The choices the duo and their band members make with this music are often surprising. When they reveal patterns, those too occasionally surprise. Some of the most striking songs on the new album tend to be those that painstakingly recreate the instrumentation of earlier eras. The reduction of detail to impressionistic designs, and the bulking up of slender songs into rockier material are frequent moves on the album. Plant and Krauss also tend to slow down and distill songs into sleek, mellow productions that rely on grooves. When they recreate sounds faithfully, it’s exciting to hear them render the preserved features in higher definition. Finally, the vocal chemistry is always enjoyable. The singers simplify and embellish their vocals as they see fit, and often split single vocal lines into harmonies that amplify and reconfigure the original works. The way that they peak and trough in unison, diverge on whims, and intersect in revelatory moments can carry songs. Of course, whenever the two voices join, they mark a real-time collaboration of the two personalities at the helm, a musical connection that one has to marvel at.
“Raise the Roof” releases Nov. 19 on Apple Music.