Band of Joy
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2010, Volume 17, #11
Written by John Metzger
Mon November 29, 2010, 06:30 AM CST
Many eyebrows were raised when it first was announced that Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, and producer T Bone Burnett were collaborating on a new album. Although each of the projectís participants shared an interest in blues and folk music, they also had spent their careers exploring these styles from decidedly different perspectives. To many, this unlikely union of talent seemed destined either to make a major statement or to construct a minor curiosity. In the end, Raising Sand fell into the former category. The key, as Burnett seemed to know immediately, was to strike the right balance among their personalities. Plant, Krauss, and Burnett brought out the best in each other, and they were rewarded for their efforts with heaps of accolades from critics, industry insiders, and fans alike.
The tidal wave of praise that Plant, Krauss, and Burnett received was certainly well deserved. By the same token, though, it made the prospects of creating an equally successful sequel exceedingly difficult to achieve. After all, if their next endeavor sounded too much like Raising Sand, it would be deemed formulaic. By contrast, if Plant, Krauss, and Burnett followed a dramatically different route, they probably would lose the audience that had developed around the brilliance of their initial collaboration.
When Krauss was unable to fit a second recording project with Plant and Burnett into her schedule, their eagerly anticipated reunion was placed on hold, at least temporarily. Even if she had been available, though, it would have been wise for them to take an extended break. Considering that almost anything that Plant did in the aftermath Raising Sand inevitably was going to frustrate fans, he and Krauss likely dodged a bullet. Instead, with his latest set Band of Joy, Plant seems to have decided to take one for the team.
Although they are initially hard to discern, there is no doubt that Band of Joy contains plenty of highlights. Unfortunately, it also was sculpted from a flawed blueprint, its missteps magnified by the perfection of Raising Sand. At first glance, Plant merely replaced Krauss and Burnett with Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller, respectively. A cover of Los Lobosí Angel Dance, which opens the set, lends further credence to the notion that Band of Joy is designed to filter another journey into roots-oriented material through a series of atmospherically subtle arrangements. Plant, however, isnít doing himself any favors by inviting comparisons between Band of Joy and its predecessor.
Part of the reason that Raising Sand succeeded was because, even though it embarked upon a series of surprising twists and turns that re-imagined Led Zeppelinís acoustic side, it made listeners forget about the powerhouse screams and cries that once had erupted from Plant with tremendous regularity. Band of Joy dips back into the same stream of material, but this time, it also begs for Plant to lose himself in the songs. Consequently, it often feels as if he is delivering the lyrics with too much restraint. It isnít until late in the album, during an impassioned reading of Cindy Iíll Marry You Someday, that Plant unleashes his visceral vocal attack with a series of orgasmic grunts. Good as it is, however, it also sounds like he merely is regurgitating his past.
The biggest problem that plagues Band of Joy, however, is the way in which the album was made. Its title stems from a pre-Led Zeppelin outfit that featured Plant and drummer John Bonham. Their music blurred the lines between folk-rock and psychedelia, and fittingly, Band of Joy is an attempt to craft a Sgt. Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band-style effort for the roots-rock crowd. The concept itself is certainly worth exploring, but Plant and Miller falter in executing the plan.
Throughout Band of Joy, there exists a faux-dimensionality to the arrangements, and sometimes, this leaves the music sounding rather cold, distant, and digitally processed. This approach is less noticeable on a pair of tracks culled from the indie group Low (Silver Rider and Monkey), where the guitars cut through the hushed tension with explosive ferocity. On cuts like Richard Thompsonís House of Cards and the collectionís lone original tune (Central Two-O-Nine), however, it becomes a liability that repeatedly undermines many of the albumís better moments.
Fortunately, some of the songs, particularly during Band of Joyís latter half, are so ridiculously infectious and engaging ó Milton Mapesí The Only Sound that Matters and Townes Van Zandtís Harmís Swift Way, among them ó that as the set progresses, it becomes easier to forgive Plant for his transgressions. In the end, although Band of Joy doesnít attain the same level of perfection as Raising Sand, it does manage, in spite of its flaws, to find its own way. Wrapped in a warmer ambience, though, it would have fared even better. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Band of Joy is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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