Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
I was a bit skeptical of this release when I caught wind of it a couple months ago. I'm a big fan of Alison Krauss, and I think she has carved out a distinctive niche for herself, a place that is not restrictive of her talents and versatility but is nonetheless pretty confidently circumscribed. This pairing with Robert Plant, the famous vocalist from the early hard rock band Led Zeppelin, seemed a defiant step outside her comfort zone. Her voice is pure and angelic, quite a contrast to the wounded-animal howl of Plant, and after her duets with aging rocker John Waite on her last album--a pairing which I felt did not work for her--I wondered whether she were really cut out for harder material.
Well, I may have had the wrong end of the stick in this case; I needn't have worried. This pairing works much better than I expected, chiefly to the exact extent that Plant has wandered afield from what I was prepared for. That said, I'm really not familiar with Led Zeppelin or whatever of Robert Plant's solo career may have followed the band's demise. But this material is much closer to Alison's milieu than what I imagine his to be. Looking on Wikipedia now, it seems he is renowned for his ability to play a wide range of styles, so maybe this pairing with Alison Krauss is surprising to me only because of my limited knowledge of Plant. Whatever, it seems to work.
Much of the album is quiet and contemplative, sometimes extremely so. Famed producer T. Bone Burnett has given the singers a very dry and sparse backing, some tracks sounding like little more than 2-track demos recorded in someone's basement. Things are closely recorded, but there is a conspicuous absence of lushness or smoothness to how the sound has been captured and processed. And much of the instrumental playing is so subdued and elementary that it sounds almost hillbilly-primitive. Plant lets his vocals go a couple times just a bit, and in those moments his stylistic identity--and the weight of several decades of his presence in rock music--comes careening to the fore, but just as quickly he's back to practically whispering over what sounds like barely-played accompaniment. This peculiar lack of energy does not translate into a lack of vitality, exactly, but the result is so quietly nuanced that it takes rapt attention to hear the details. I can't decide just yet whether those details pay off adequately for the effort.
Alison does what Alison always does, singing her angelic song and, on several tracks, playing her plaintive fiddle. Krauss and Plant each take a solo turn or two, but most of the time it's Alison singing harmony for Plant. With vocal harmonies a pointed specialty of Krauss's band, Union Station, she seems very well prepared for this role.
But the aftertaste is of the striking sparseness of the tracks, and of the conspicuous absence of sonic luxury. Not to say that I'm oblivious to the beauty of a simple, well-turned phrase or a melodic idea in isolation, but my preference for more worked-out compositions causes me to take a wait-and-see attitude on this album.