"Band of Joy" by Robert Plant

Robert Plant
Band of Joy
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Not being as familiar with Robert Plant’s influences as others may have been, I was stunned with fear in early 2007 to hear whispers of his coming project with Alison Krauss. Upon hearing Raising Sand I was forced to take back all youthful, uninformed, and disparaging words spoken about Plant and his caterwauling with Led Zeppelin; still not a huge appreciator of the lead balloon, as I delved deeper into his recorded legacy, I found much to appreciate and respect in Plant’s singing.

Even with a band centered about the twin forces that are Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, one may not have anticipated that Robert Plant’s second foray into the roots-country-Americana field would be as entirely successful as Band of Joy most obviously is.

As on his previous, award-winning collaboration with Krauss, Plant surrounds himself with the finest talent and songs that money, influence, and friendship can solicit. This time out Bekka Bramlett and Patty Griffin serve as Plant’s female foils, although their contributions are less consistently present than Krauss’ were.

Vibrant and full, the instrumentation on this album swirls into dirges that are almost trance-inducing. Reworking songs from key writers — Hidalgo & Perez, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt — as well some less familiar and those whose names are lost within traditions, Plant and album co-producer Miller have created a bold, sonically challenging and sturdy interpretation of modern roots music.

“Silver Rider,” one of two Low songs included, most directly ghosts the sound of Raising Sand. Layered harmony is gently filtered through a swirl of sounds owing as much to north Africa as Memphis and Nashville. “You Can’t Buy My Love” perhaps comes closest to exploring the sounds most frequently associated with Plant pre-Raising Sand; the Barbara Lynn track is stretched out a little while being given a rock ‘n’ roll cover that should stand as one of the album’s crowning achievements.

“Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, familiar to all who embrace traditional folk music, have never likely sounded quite like they do here. Plant gives “Cindy” an erotic overtone absent on previously heard recordings.

While a thoroughly engaging album in its own right, albums like Band of Joy can lead one in new directions. Much as listening to an early Emmylou Harris album did, this one sends listeners on a search to learn more about the writers and artists covered, like Barbara Lewis, Low, and Milton Mapes, a fairly obscure outfit whose “The Only Sound that Matters” allows Plant to revisit the thrill of discovering the music that will maintain a significant presence for the rest of one’s life.

What a joyful thing it is to hear afresh songs long familiar.