The first two songs on Robert Plant's quietly exhilarating new album, Band of Joy, represent an intriguing continental shift.
With brittle, bowing bass strings as a catalyst, he transforms Los Lobos' Angel Dance into a dark bit of British folk-dance mischief. The interpretation sounds centuries old, if not otherworldly entirely. But when he shifts to House of Cards, a forgotten 1978 tune by Richard Thompson, the patriarch of British folk-rock troubadours, the feel becomes altogether American. Sounding every bit as ancient as Angel Dance, the song seems fit for a congregational church service. But the rural glow is unmistakable.
Thus we have the newest stylistic turn in the continually evolving career of the singer who once shook the world as frontman for Led Zeppelin. He's also the artist who undoubtedly shunned what had to have been a ridiculous fortune to tour again with his Zep mates a few years ago in favor of exploring Americana folk, rock and soul with bluegrass-pop princess Alison Krauss. The move stymied, even infuriated, the Zeppelin faithful, but it went on to win Plant and Krauss six Grammy Awards for their 2007 album, Raising Sand.
Band of Joy is both an extension and a detour from that triumph. A follow-up to Raising Sand was reportedly under way but wound up being scrapped by both artists. That sent Plant to Americana kingpin Buddy Miller, co-guitarist for the Raising Sand tour. With Miller as co-producer, Plant resurrected the name of his pre-Zeppelin group, Band of Joy, and designed an album that retains Raising Sand's spooky, rootsy charm but shifts the folk compass halfway between Appalachia and England.
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What results is a sound that seems initially more singular than the music on Raising Sand. With Krauss gone, Plant enlists esteemed songsmith Patty Griffin. But Griffin remains largely in the background on Band of Joy as one of the voices that balance out Plant's incantatory version of Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down. Griffin slips into the passenger seat, though, for the breathy moans that play off of Miller's creepy electric guitar ambience during luscious reworkings of two Low tunes, Silver Dagger and Monkey.
And then there are the surprises, like the dry banjo lead of Darrell Scott that transforms the pre-bluegrass staple Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday into a beguiling dirge. Similarly, Barbara Lynn's You Can't Buy Me Love emerges as a blast of jagged, funky, fuzzy, big beat rock 'n' roll.
Some might mourn Krauss's absence on Band of Joy the same way the rock legions still pine for the return of Led Zeppelin. But on this fine new recording, Plant remains ever the rock journeyman, following the lure of songs that seldom remain the same.