Whatever else can be said of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, they certainly can't be accused of rushing to cash in on the towering success of their 2007 debut collection, Raising Sand. Fourteen years later the British rock star and latter day Americana evangelist and bluegrass's most acclaimed voice have teamed up again with ace producer T Bone Burnett to make a record of shimmering, often dark, beauty and curatorial wonder.
The musical marriage of Krauss (50) and Plant (73) brings together two very disparate talents. As Burnett said in a recent interview: “She’s much more pristine, so I think her goal is to get it to a certain level of excellence that you don’t really aspire to in the blues. And Robert is the other way: he’s loose like the blues. She’s much more rehearsed and he’s more improvisational; she’s much more clean and he’s dirty.”
Krauss recognises this: “And so I think why this really works and sounds so different is because he doesn’t change who he is. And I don’t change who I am.”
But the music changes both, creates a third space beyond their instinctive comfort zone marshalled by the ever tasteful Burnett and his outstanding band including guitarists Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller and Bill Frisell. Apparently, the 12 tracks, almost all covers, were chosen after a long process of ideas passing back and forth. They include long-forgotten songs by Calexico, Merle Haggard, Allen Toussaint, The Everly Brothers, Ola Belle Reed, Anne Briggs, Geeshie Wiley, Bert Jansch and more. High and Lonesome, the sole original song, written by Plant and Burnett, strikes an odd note with Plant sounding very much like the Plant of old.
That is a minor blemish. The other 11 tracks combine to create a sense of haunted loss, albeit one tinged with beauty. The relatively recent (2002) Calexico song Quattro (World Drifts In) sets the tone: mystery, darkness, loss. The Everly Brothers’ The Price of Love becomes a sombre lesson in life, Krauss’s crystal clear vocal contrasting with the rich, moody soundscape. Krauss also impresses with Toussaint’s Trouble With My Lover, her voice’s surprisingly delicious sensuality underscored by Plant’s low-key backing vocal and the bubbling inventive arrangement.
Krauss’s other outstanding performances are on Geeshie Wiley’s chilling Last Kind Words, a blues tune that feels as real as when it was written 100 years ago, and Merle Haggard’s timeless lament Going Where the Lonely Go. Plant is arguably more low key though he turns in stellar performances on Pop Staples’ Somebody Was Watching and Ola Belle Reed’s You Led Me To The Wrong while both singers let it rip on Randy Weeks’ Can’t Let Go. It’s a partnership that does indeed raise the roof.