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


Or, The Whale: Or, The Whale

RIYL: The Jayhawks, The Parson Red Heads, Wilco

Note to Alison Krauss and Bob Dylan: give Or, The Whale a call next time you’re looking for a hot young opening band to help carry your Americana torch. Indeed, a tinge of that days-of-old feeling permeates the sweet, harmony-laden sounds of San Francisco’s rising alt-country starlets in Or, The Whale. On the band’s self-titled second album, steel and acoustic guitars provide the rural flavor, and the vocals of Lindsay Garfield, bassist Justin Fantil, keyboardist Julie Ann Thomasson and guitarists Alex Robins and Matt Sartain seal the deal. They lead, coalesce, and otherwise intertwine in ways that suggest a deep down happiness that transcends the heartbreaking subject matter, like the agoraphobe in “Never Coming Out” and dead dog lament “Datura.” These are all fine and dandy, but the album’s clincher is the slow building centerpiece “Count the Stars,” where sound, feel and execution meet to achieve a harmonious balance that rivals the one inherent in the band’s own vocal strength. (Seany 2009)

Or, The Whale MySpace