Robert Plant: Band of Joy


RIYL: Buddy Miller, Bob Dylan, Daniel Lanois

Robert-Plant-Band-of-Joy-artwork[1]Like a handful of his graying peers – Van Morrison and Neil Young come to mind – Robert Plant has made a career out of defying and confounding his fans’ expectations. What makes Plant unique among rock’s elder contrarians, though, is quality control; he may not give his fans what they say they want, but it’s rare that he delivers an album that’s impossible to love.

Band of Joy is a case in point. In terms of tone and vibe, it picks up more or less where his Grammy-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, left off: an album of rootsy, Nashville-recorded covers, rich in beautifully subdued atmosphere. But Plant remains too restless to settle for a straight sequel; he abandoned the follow-up sessions with Krauss and Sand producer T Bone Burnett, opting instead to team up with producer/guitarist Buddy Miller for a set whose title serves as a playful reminder of his pre-Zeppelin band.

What listeners are left with is an album that lacks Sand‘s stately grace, but has a pungent, bluesy heft all its own. Plant’s choice of material is as impeccable as ever – standouts include a mandolin-laced version of Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance” and a mournfully loping take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way” – and Miller proves a splendid foil, adding dark, roiling swaths of guitar that hover over crisply recorded arrangements. And then, of course, there are the vocals: Plant remains in fine form, and if you’re disappointed by his continued disinterest in unleashing his old hammer-of-the-gods howl, you can take comfort in the presence of Patty Griffin, who lends a layer of burnished harmony to seven of the album’s 12 tracks.

So it isn’t a Zep reunion, and it isn’t Raising Sand II. Here’s what Band of Joy is: An addictive collection of strong, quietly confident performances from a 62-year-old man who could have started phoning it in 25 years ago, but hasn’t forgotten how to make music simply for the joy of it. If it isn’t one of the best albums of the year, it’s certainly one of the purest. (Rounder 2010)

Robert Plant MySpace page

  

Heart: Red Velvet Car


RIYL: Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, classic Heart

If you’re a fan of Heart, you probably have an affinity for their early stuff, as in the Dreamboat Annie days. Or you might have been hooked in the ‘80s, when, as singer Ann Wilson says, the band “made a devil’s bargain” – i.e. they wrote pop songs that the label wanted them to, such as “Never” and “If Looks Could Kill.” Not that those songs were bad; in fact, some would argue that this is when Heart really arrived. Still, these sisters and their band mates appear to long for the “good old days,” when they could emulate their biggest inspiration, Led Zeppelin. And now with Red Velvet Car, Heart’s first studio album since Jupiter’s Darling in 2004, they have succeeded. A big reason is producer Ben Mink, who has re-created the best of the “old” Heart but has given it a slick, current feel as well. The songwriting is top-notch, and while Ann Wilson’s voice is showing signs of weathering, you can put this album up against any heritage act’s new material and it will stand up, and above, just about anything.

“There You Go” kicks off with a similar rhythmic riff to one of Heart’s biggest hits, “Straight On,” and it’s a solid start. And the Zeppelin vibe is in full glory on “WTF,” “Queen City,” and in particular on “Death Valley,” with Nancy Wilson emulating Jimmy Page’s tone and playing with sick precision. But the band shines big on the title track, on which Ann belts it out like in her heyday, and on a track Nancy sings, the acoustic driven “Hey You.” “Safronias Monk” feels like 1978, and the closer, “Sand,” also sounds like classic Heart, but maybe more like an anthem from the ‘80s. It can’t be easy to say you want to go back to your roots and actually do it, but Heart appears to have done just that. And despite the fact that the sisters Wilson have been rolling along for years on tour, Red Velvet Car is the type of effort that should, and might, win “comeback of the year” awards. (Sony Legacy 2010)

Heart website

  

Led Zeppelin: Good Times Bad Times; A Visual Biography of the Ultimate Band

For fans of iconic rock band Led Zeppelin, there will forever be a hole in their collective heart stemming from the tragic death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. There have been several attempts at reunion performances, most recently in 2007 with Bonham’s son Jason pounding the skins for a tribute to Atlantic Records’ founder Ahmet Ertegun. But there has never been another tour, or any new music from the band, nor any real promise of such. And as difficult as that may be to swallow for a Led Zep fan, it may be best to remember these guys as they were – pioneers of hard rock, filling arenas with loud music and prompting young musicians everywhere to dream of becoming rock stars.

And it’s easier to remember the good times when you have books like “Led Zeppelin: Good Times Bad Times (A Visual Biography of the Ultimate Band)” by long-time Led Zep researchers Jerry Prochnicky and Ralph Hulett. This 200-plus page hardcover is filled with some incredible shots of the band from the early days when they were known as the New Yardbirds, all the way up to that 2007 performance that features a white-haired Jimmy Page on guitar. Throughout, there are live shots, shots of the band hanging out at home with their families, shots that might be considered ubiquitous and others that are quite obscure. Sometimes photos can tell a story better than words can, and in this case the authors have put together one of the finest retrospectives possible. The only thing missing is an accompanying music CD, but we suggest drawing from your own Zep collection, and crank it up really loud while you peruse. It’s the only way. (Abrams Books 2009)

  

Them Crooked Vultures: Them Crooked Vultures


RIYL: Queens of the Stone Age, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana

Ever since Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri parted ways, Queens of the Stone Age have been missing a certain “oomph.” It hardly seemed right to continue with the name anyway, since the dynamic between Josh and Nick was a big part of what made that band so great in the first place.

For now, anyway, Josh is putting the Queens name aside, even though Them Crooked Vultures could have easily been called a Queens record simply by virtue of the fact that Songs for the Deaf drummer Dave Grohl is providing TCV’s undulating rhythms. And although Josh is the dominant voice and guitarist of Them Crooked Vultures, to say that he is outweighed by the mere presence of his bandmates – bassist John Paul Jones and drummer Dave Grohl – is an understatement. But make no mistake, Them Crooked Vultures is very much a Josh Homme record. All the raunch and sleaze he brings to Queens of the Stone Age is here (sample double entendre: “Don’t hold it against me, unless it gets hard,” from “No One Loves Me and Neither Do I”), as is that magical de-wussified angst he does so well (see “Bandoliers,” an awesomely rockin’ breakup song if there ever was one).

But what distinguishes TCV from Queens is ultimately that rock-solid, locked-in rhythm section created by Jones and Grohl. Yes, at times it does kind of recall the groove of the groovingest Led Zeppelin, and Josh will occasionally match that with some Zep-like riffage. And though most of the songs are worthy of the musicians playing them, the record starts to drag towards the end… just like the last two Queens records. But this is a small complaint in light of the fact that John Paul Jones is playing in a kick-ass rock band once again, Dave Grohl is back behind the drum kit where he belongs, and Josh Homme is showing no signs of slowing down. Rarely does a “supergroup” get much better than this. (Interscope 2009)

Them Crooked Vultures MySpace page

  

New supergroup Them Cooked Vultures to tour

Crooked

To my knowledge, the very first legitimate “supergroup” in rock and roll was Blind Faith, a band that included Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, and Ric Grech. Then came CSN(Y), the Traveling Wilburys, and a few others that aren’t coming to mind. I’m not going to list the members’ credentials from these groups — that would take hours. Let’s just say if you’ve never heard of anyone from the Traveling Wilburys, I don’t know how you can physically perform the tasks of everyday life.

Anyway, I’ve been largely underwhelmed by the supergroups of this century. Bands like Velvet Revolver, the Transplants, Zwan, and Chickenfoot have, for my taste, never recorded anything interesting enough that confirms their collective talents. Well, a new supergroup has decided to enter the fold, and rather than dish out some lackluster effort, they actually seem intent on creating some solid music. They’re called Them Crooked Vultures and the outfit consists of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin). As a dedicated listener of the 70s, John Paul Jones makes this band worthwhile. The band has been surprising audiences at European festivals but has yet to play a show in America. Soon, that will all change, as they’ve announced their new tour dates.

The band’s just-announced nine-date U.S. jaunt kicks October 1 with a pair of gigs in Austin, TX, including a set for Austin City Limits. The rockers will hit major Midwest and East Coast cities like Detroit and Boston before touring the UK in December, but, sadly, will skip New York and the entire West Coast. Let’s hope this brief run is just the beginning!

Them Crooked Vultures Tour Dates: 10/1, Austin, TX (Stubb’s)
10/2, Austin, TX (Austin City Limits Festival)
10/5, Nashville, TN (War Memorial)
10/6, Columbus, OH (LC Pavilion)
10/8, Detroit, MI (The Fillmore)
10/9, Toronto, Ontario (The Sound Academy)
10/11, Boston, MA (House of Blues)
10/12, Philadelphia, PA (The Electric Factory)
10/14, Washington, DC (930 Club)
12/10: Plymouth, UK (Pavilions)

12/11: Portsmouth, UK (Guildhall)

12/13: Blackpool, UK (Empress Ballroom)

12/14: Birmingham, UK (O2 Academy)

12/15: Edinburgh, UK (O2 Academy)

12/17: London, UK (HMV Hammersmith Apollo)

I’m not sure why California isn’t getting any love, but I’m sure they’ll get around to it. Their first album, Deserve the Future, is due out sometime next year.

  

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