I was quite dismissive when classic rock icon, former Led Zeppelin chief yowler Robert Plant, joined bluegrass Gen-X flagship Alison Krauss to release their unlikely-looking collaborative debut album, Sand rising, in 2007 O brother, where are you? and Cold mountain– an effort which seemed to me too close to the domestication of the hairy and unpleasant heritage of the blues and the country in a basic atmosphere of good taste and canonically guaranteed. This Sand rising continued a sweep of the Grammys seemed to embody the music industry’s determination to find an excuse to drape garlands over baby boom dinosaurs. Yes, what Burnett, Plant, and Krauss had done was musically flawless. But I wanted to feel a sharper tingling.
Everything looks different in 2021, as Plant, Krauss and Burnett reunite to present the sequel to this record, Raise the roof. I’m not so wary of domestic or community music anymore, which has always been a part of roots traditions. And the baby boomer musical hegemony is far from the oppressive force it once was – evidenced by this week’s Grammy nominations, filled with teenage and 20-year-old artists. On the contrary, the influences of streaming and TikTok could erode the context and awareness of music history. Cover albums like Plant and Krauss, drawing from a repertoire of decades and genres, offer listeners a chance to trace and explore unknown musical regions.
I don’t think I was totally wrong Sand rising; listen again today, he still seems to be leaning a little heavily over the pretty, sleeping girl. But closer listening reveals more than worth hearing, and it certainly doesn’t sound so cynical, given that artists have waited over a dozen years to follow through on its success. Instead, Krauss continued her prestigious run in Americana (among female Grammy winners, her total is just behind Beyoncé’s). And Plant, now 73, turned out to be one of the broader-minded artists of his time, reaching out to collaborators around the world, far from reactionary coots like Van Morrison and Eric. Clapton among his peers in the 1960s.
Even though they went their own way, Plant and Krauss apparently kept in touch, exchanging ideas for songs they could sing, until they had the preparation for a new album. I think you can hear the cumulative effects of this process on Raise the roof compared to its predecessor, where producer Burnett made all the song choices. There is more variety in the mood and rhythm here, and the singers sound more firmly, showing all the vocal and emotional colors available to them.
On the other hand, thematically, there is a more consistent guideline than on Sand rising: While it’s not embarrassing until you stop to notice it, almost all of the songs here tell the story of a couple separated by choice or circumstance, expressing their agonies or desires or resignation, and the long chances against their reunion. The 12-track, 53-minute set begins with “Quattro (World Drifts In)”, originally by Arizona indie-twang band Calexico, which vaguely alludes to “a time, busy and overgrown”, and having “no choice but to run to the mountains, where no poppies grow” – a possible geopolitical setting for all of these travel stories. And although the album was recorded in 2019, its post-pandemic release imbues the songs with echoes of our recent collective experiences of separation and loneliness, and Plant and Krauss themselves were separated by many years as a duo, so the subject evokes this long hiatus.
This theme also emphasizes something about the vibe of Plant and Krauss together. Unlike a sibling band like the Everly Brothers, whose 1965 rocker “The Price of Love” receives slow-motion and shuddering treatment here, their vocals do not merge into a symbiotic unit. Instead, with its weathered rock’n’roll pipes and more controlled pearly timbres, they gain strength in contrast and distance, an energy that seems to be generated in the space in between. They are separated by sex and generation, training and tradition, and Atlantic tides between their countries of origin. Plant is from the Black Country of the British West Midlands and Krauss of Illinois, where she became a competitive violin prodigy and then a bluegrass star from a young age. No matter how elegantly they blend together, the ear hears them as two individuals, independent musical minds making choices in response to each other.
The fine details of that call and response, that approach and that retreat, braided through every song, is what makes their collaboration so rewarding on repeat listenings. While Raise the roof serves very well as a dinner background for many consumers, to get the maximum impact you should soak it in a dark room with your headphones on, lean back and sink deep.
Its abundance is also due to the vocals and the instrumental arrangements. Burnett gathered the core of the Murderer Row who performed on Rise of the sand—guitar genius Marc Ribot, drummer-percussionist Jay Bellerose and bassist Norman Crouch – and enriched them with almost ridiculous riches, including jazz and country guitar virtuosos Bill Frisell and Buddy Miller among many others; David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, playing the regional variant of the Mexican guitar, the jarana; and Nashville session mainstay Jeff Taylor, playing exotic antiques like dolceola and marxophone. The sound is never busy, but it is often thick, one player draws in the foliage while another draws the zigzags of insects and birds between the leaves. Like on a great jazz record, it can be intoxicating here to tune the gestalt of a given piece and focus on a particular microelement – the evolutionary path of a Miller mandolin part, or Ribot playing a Hofner bass in counterpoint to Crouch is standing while Krauss’s brother Viktor (another bassist here) adds a woozy mellotron growl.
Still, Krauss and Plant remain the main draws, alongside the songs themselves. Given the dualities that define the record, I am attracted to sorting songs in pairs. My favorite couple are the two songs of the British folk revival of the 1960s: “It Don’t Bother Me” by beloved crooner-guitarist Bert Jansch and “Go Your Way” by the almost forgotten Anne Briggs, where Plant and Krauss divide, unlike gender lines. Plant tenderly caresses the melody of Briggs’s aria on an abandoned woman: “I sit mending your clothes / That you will never wear / I prepare the kitchen daily for you / But woe to me…” During this time, Krauss orders Jansch’s Song of Male Defiance (or Denial) with firm certainty: “You twist my words / Like braided reeds … But I don’t mind what you say / No, no, I don’t mind . It is perhaps the piece with the assumed identity, or simply the elementary robustness of the songs themselves, which draw the most beautiful interpretations of each of the singers.
A more upbeat dyad, played more directly in terms of genre, derives from two somewhat obscure southern soul tracks from the 1960s: “Trouble With My Lover,” a quivering infusion of the spirit of New Orleans written by the late Allan Toussaint and originally sung in a deep-cut recording by Betty Harris; and Bobby Moore’s “Searching for My Love” by Rhythm Aces, which in the version here harks back to Plant’s days in the 1980s retro rock band, the Honeydrippers, only better. Another transformative pair offers a stylistic change instead of a gender shift: Plant sings the classic Appalachian murder (and death penalty) ballad, “You Led Me to the Wrong” by Ola Belle Reed, which sings brings together Krauss specialties. Meanwhile, she takes the helm of the legendary “Last Kind Word Blues” of the early 1930s by Geeshie Wiley, a fundamental blues singer whose very existence.
The album’s only original song follows, a Plant and Burnett composition titled “High and Lonesome,” itself a throwback, but now to Plant’s own past. Anyone who longs for a Led Zep blues pastiche will find it here. The screaming high notes of yesteryear are absent, but it’s still strange how vividly Plant can summon those youthful tones whenever he wants. After that, Krauss restores tranquility with a faithful yet lovely rendition of Merle Haggard’s 1982 country hit, “Going Where the Lonely Go”. If I had had the choice, I might have finished the album with those lullaby tones. There’s nothing exactly wrong with the “Someone Watching Over Me” gospel-style closing workout (and it provides some sort of thematic closing), but it comes across as a tactile routine – I’d rather hear that of the late Pops Staples.
Given how much louder an album is, it’s a shame that Raise the roof is unlikely to become the phenomenon Sand rising was. But one of his pleasures is that over the decades, Plant and Krauss have made it clear that, for them, it isn’t about those awards. Nor is it a statement, a pedantic lesson in the need for music for a balanced diet, or, worse, some kind of tastefully and exquisite carved stick with which to beat the younger generations on what ” real music ”. It’s just a congregation of amazingly gifted people who come together every once in a while to do something beautiful, just because. His cultural policy could be broken down further, but he now seems so unloaded from the agendas that he feels wiser not to, for once. Instead, simply enjoy it in rare and sweet moderation.