Robert Plant "Band of Joy" (Decca/Charm Factory, 2010)
Plant's wayward solo journey relies on his own good judgement of what is worthwhile. Thank goodness.
Aurally, this is a very different prospect from Plant's last album - the multi-award winner 'Raising Sand', recorded with Alison Kraus. The tone this time is less pure - perhaps not surprising with that sublime voice absent as a duet partner. 'Band of Joy' was, it can hardly have escaped anyone's attention,
the name of Plant's first band back in the sixties - a psychedelic blues unit which also included John Bonham - and indeed Band of Joy the album has a strong
sixties feel in places. It can also hardly have escaped anyone’s notice that this album is what Robert Plant chose to do rather than pursue a full Zeppelin
There are some similarities to 'Raising Sand' - again it's a covers album, it has a strong "roots" feel to it, although this time it's somewhat earthier, and it could be taken as a further exploration of Americana. Certainly like that earlier album there are a number of traditional songs - such as the oft recorded 'Cindy I'll Marry You Some Day', and a song by Americana favourite Townes Van Zandt. However amongst others there are also songs by Richard Thompson and a brace by Low's Alan Sparhawk. And there are a couple of oddities added to the mix.
The excellent opener, a cover of Los Lobos' 'Little Angel Dance', is mandolin and crunching electric guitar driven, and has a definite Led Zeppelin feel to
it. Plant's vocals are restrained on this; there are no wild Zeppelin style blues screams, which is true throughout the album. It's no surprise that this is the first single off the album.
Richard Thompson's 'House of Cards', referencing as it does Dylan with it's "shake your windows and rattle your doors" line, has something of the feel of a revitalised and electrified ‘60's protest folk anthem and as far as it goes is an enjoyable song. But it's context free - who or what is Plant using it to rail against? The following song, the brief country blues of 'Central-Two-o-Nine', passes like a train in the night and leaves only a fleeting stomping impression.
'Silver Rider' opens with raw guitar, reminiscent of Neil Young's favourite changes, and has a feel of being close kin to Gene Clark's 'Silver Raven'. There's a sense of dread and the imminent intrusion of death, like a modern 'She Moves Through the Fair' perhaps with the presence of a ghostly female protagonist. Breathless and mysterious and with the accompanying
electric guitar you long for.
Things get a little shaky towards the middle of the album. 'You Can't Buy My Love' starts off as a straight rock 'n' roll song but by the time the chorus
arrives it has drifted into the Merseybeat sound you may have half anticipated from the title. It's an early 60's track given a 21st century makeover. I'm not sure it works. The follow on 'Falling in Love Again' opens up sounding like an out take from Lennon's “Rock 'n' Roll” album, and doesn't get any better when the fifties gospelish backing vocals kick-in. It's a skip over track.
Things start moving in the right direction again with 'The Only Sound that Matters' and 'Monkey'. The first is a straight country reading which floats along on pedal steel and gentle brushed drumming with Plant’s vocal exuding a gorgeous honeyed tone. 'Monkey' creates a discordant atmosphere of sullen dread as if the path you’re destined to take is the very dark alley you shouldn‘t travel down, as Plant duets with Patty Griffin over another a knife edge electric guitar backing.
This leads into a downbeat reading of 'Cindy I'll Marry You Some Day'. To hear such a typically rollicking tune converted to a banjo driving near dirge is, of
course, disorientating initially but it works well.
Townes' 'Harm's Swift Way' bounces along like an mid-seventies Dylan track. And if searching for hidden meanings then it's a selection - with the oft repeated refrain of "Oh me. Oh my. Who's going to mark my time?" - that could be regarded as a deliberate questioning of all that Plant has done to date, and perhaps serves to underline that his greatest solo success has come with this new Americana direction - since, like 'Raising Sand', 'Band of Joy' is surely bound to sell by the million.
On 'Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down', over a very basic banjo part, Plant evokes a kneeling repentant sinner's plea. There is a cinematic quality to the song as it steadily builds and further instruments are added to the mix. It passes slowly through the same scenery as Dylan's 'Cold Irons Bound' to finish by becoming a strident foot stomper, with our sinner now standing and shaking a fist at the face of the great deceiver.
'Even This Shall Pass Away' completes 'Band of Joy’s circular trajectory by marking a slight return to the music of the album's opener. This time there is a sound not a little like a funked up late Zeppelin tune. It's a meditation on the slightness of riches, fame and glory. It’s tempting to read a message into lines like “pleasures come but not to stay, even this shall pass away”. Is this a rejection of old music, or, an even more Machiavellian statement, that this is the end of the roots path? Well, we'll have to await the next album for the answer to that.
There has been plenty of press release talk of this being Plant's "most eclectic album" - surely whoever wrote that hasn't heard 'Dreamland' or 'Mighty Rearranger'. What it is, though, is a solid album of Americana, with some outstanding tracks - I'm thinking particularly of 'Little Angel Dance' and 'Silver Rider' - and only a couple of false steps. It's a safe recommendation.
Date review added: Monday, September 13, 2010
Reviewer: Jonathan Aird
Related web link: Robert Palnt - Band of Joy