In theory, a duet album between a notorious heavy-metal bad boy (Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant) and a prim bluegrass angel (Appalachian crossover queen Alison Krauss) might be an odd coupling. But Raising Sand, the long-in-the-planning, late-2007 collaboration between these two singular voices and mutual admirers works something fierce.
There was always a trad quality, after all, beneath Zeppelin's bombast — a mix of British folk and American blues whose collision isn't far from Krauss' native white American mountain music.
In his adventurous post-Zep career, Plant has dabbled in all sorts of roots forms — Delta blues alongside old cohort Jimmy Page, old-time rock-and-roll in the Honey-drippers, and traditional Middle Eastern music on his own.
As for Krauss, the bluegrass prodigy who was introduced to the wider world on the terrific 1995 compilation Now That I've Found You: A Collection has taken to celebrity, morphing into a saucier, sexier model of her old self in time for her close-up on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. And Krauss' ostensible modesty has belied a prolific drive.
So, Raising Sand wasn't really much of a stretch for these two after all. For Plant, this low-key roots record is probably more of a natural fit at age 59 than a Led Zeppelin reunion. And for Krauss, the pairing fits neatly into a pattern of artistic ambition that has driven her for the past decade or so. Nobody here is seeking a rehab job, just a rewarding one-off, which is what they achieve.
Both Plant and Krauss, within their native worlds, represent purity of a sort — a brand of vocal authenticity. But both singers tone down their signature sounds here. Plant's high-pitched hyena-in-heat wail is eschewed for a softer, deeper sound. Krauss' bell-like voice pierces through occasionally, but mostly she works on entwining it with Plant.
Raising Sand was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who had helmed the O Brother juggernaut, and he's definitely back in producer-as-curator mold for his Nashville recorded super-session. He assembles an ace band and, with them, concocts an atmospheric sound whose off-kilter grooves come across like a more middlebrow, more accessible version of roots experimentalists Latin Playboys (a side project of Los Lobos, whom Burnett has produced). The featured hired hands here are Marc Ribot, with his tasteful downtown skronk guitar, and Norman Blake, with his backwoods acoustics.
Burnett puts this crew to work on fresh arrangements of semi-obscure material — buried chestnuts from the Everly Brothers and Gene Clark, deep cuts from Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt. Stuff like that.
The opening "Rich Woman" sets a tone, with distant percussion and Ribot's quivery guitar setting a slinky groove for Plant and Krauss' pitch-perfect but understated harmony. Basic sound and style in place, the album gets more playful and more varied. The following "Killing the Blues," penned by Chris Isaak sideman Rowland Salley, is a highlight, the voices beginning to separate slightly and becoming more distinct.
Krauss deploys her own fiddle on the moody, carnivalesque "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," penned by Burnett's ex, Sam Phillips. (No, not the deceased Memphis music patriarch.) The pace picks up with "Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)," a sunny bit of break-up-song rockabilly from the Everly Brothers that finds Krauss more loose and rhythmic than maybe ever before. She sounds more like herself on the relatively straight country of Clark's "Through the Morning, Through the Night," her voice a thing of crystalline beauty on verses, Plant joining her on the chorus.
Raising Sand peaks toward the end, when Plant takes the lead with a Honeydrippers-esque reading of the New Orleans R&B "Fortune Teller," and then the duo comes together for a sweet reading of the Mel Tillis-penned, Everly-recorded ballad "Stick With Me Baby."
The album concludes in a decidedly down-home mood. Little Milton's "Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson" morphs into a country-rock showcase where Krauss sings from a male perspective while also finding her sassy side. The ending "Your Long Journey" is mountain gospel that speaks to the duo's dual roots. They conclude the album in perfect, impregnable harmony.
Raising Sand fits comfortably into what has, over the past decade, become almost a new genre and a profitable one at a time where under-30s can't be trusted to purchase the music they acquire: prestige albums for upscale, adult listeners. It's a genre that's probably made up of equal parts sound and self-image.
From O Brother and Norah Jones to comeback albums from living and late legends such as Solomon Burke, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Loretta Lynn, these records always project Quality and always get great press. But once you hear past the concept, the artistic success rate tends to be more hit and miss. Raising Sand is one of the better examples of the genre, though it isn't perfect.
Plant and Krauss make a beautiful vocal couple. They never oversing, and they create a relaxed feel. Raising Sand doesn't reach the offhand heights the pair is sneakily striving for — it's too painstaking and precise for that — but it's a damn good record anyway.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Mud Island Amphitheatre
Tuesday, July 8th
Show starts at 7:30 p.m.; tickets $56