Review: Robert Plant – Band of Joy

Released: September 14, 2010

Label: Rounder Records

A couple years back, so-called Led Zeppelin fans were disappointed by Robert Plant’s decision to forgo any full-fledged Led Zeppelin reunion. Of course, any truly discerning fan who has taken a good listen to Plant’s solo career, particularly the three albums preceding Band of Joy, including his 2007 collaboration with Allison Krauss, should feel otherwise. What made Zeppelin great wasn’t so much the riffs or the voice or one of rock’s greatest rhythm sections; it was their unrelenting drive to push the limits and constraints of rock music. A reunion wouldn’t have that same spirit, but Robert Plant has had it all along…perhaps, now more than ever.

If you thought that Raising Sand, Plant’s dabbling in country, with modern bluegrass great Krauss, was an unlikely musical success story, Band of Joy will be every bit as much of a pleasant surprise. The album is largely made up of covers, with a few new arrangements of traditional songs and a single original. The song selection is easily a front-runner for the most diverse and perceptive since Rick Rubin worked with Johnny Cash. Opener “Angel Dance” takes on a earthier vibe than Los Lobos’ original, making for an even fuller, more human experience. Two Low songs also found their way into the mix. While Plant humanizes both beyond the limits of their slowcore bounds, it is “Monkey” that really stands out. This is a song that takes its cues from shoegazer and ambient coldness and Plant transforms it by juxtaposing those elements against the sensuality that he naturally emanates. Barbara Lynn’s “You Can’t Buy My Love” gets a bit of a jump blues treatment with an arrangement that simultaneously modernizes it. Even the more standard treatments, such as Townes Van Zandt’s final song, “Harm’s Swift Way,” afford Plant the opportunity to draw on the very full musical tradition that he has come to embody over time. The album nearly comes to a stark close with the traditional “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” but it is the closer, “Even This Shall Pass Away,” a 19th Century poem arranged by Plant and Buddy Miller, that brings the album to a strangely hopeful, though certainly not overtly happy, close. Throughout, Plant still sounds great and the musicianship and arrangements on Band of Joy bring out a full range of song dynamics and emotion, but it’s really the breadth of the song selection that makes this album such a full experience, an experience that can’t be appreciated in merely one or two listens.

Band of Joy is a name Plant has used for past projects dating back to the days before Led Zeppelin became a household name, but it’s important to recognize that it is not an historical artifact so much as a nod to Plant’s own vision that runs from the past to the present and into the future with a sense of continuity that keeps it all interconnected. At times, he leans toward history and at others he leans toward the here and now and yet to come, but mostly Plant transcends time altogether. What’s more amazing still, particularly about his recent direction, is that he maintains enough of his own artistic self to draw listeners in, but moves forward so boldly that the album takes time to sink in and go from “good” to “great.” But what really sets him apart from the handful of other artists who manage to re-invent themselves over and over (such as Bowie or U2 or Madonna) is that Plant’s catalog has more continuity. He isn’t so much re-inventing as he is writing new chapters in a long, rich and colorful story. And what a chapter Band of Joy turned out to be!

The album will be released on vinyl on October 26, 2010.

Satriani: 8/10
Zappa: 8/10
Dylan: 8/10
Aretha: 9/10
Overall: 9/10

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