It’s a curiosity that, just as the Led Zeppelin revival is reaching fever pitch, Robert Plant is sneaking out this album of reverential duets with Alison Krauss. What it does, though, is show the singer’s softer, sensitive side – something not all that apparent when atop thunderous Jimmy Page guitar riffs.
In his recent solo career Plant has tended to keep an open book, as last album Mighty Rearranger testified, with its variety of loosely world music-influenced songs. Raising Sand narrows the parameters a little to concern itself with lightly bluesy music, but at no time does either singer sound restricted.
Quite the opposite. Krauss is an ideal vocal foil, and at times the two really do sing as one. The real revelation is Plant’s ability to sing quietly, with exquisite tenderness, for long periods of time. Whilst there were occasional hints of this with Zeppelin this is unchartered recorded territory, and the accompanying textures are parted in respect of this.
All the songs here are covers from a wide range of sources – Tom Waits, Townes van Zandt and Doc Watson among them – yet Plant and Krauss make them their own. In one case this is easier, the Plant and Jimmy Page number Please Read The Letter, where Plant’s subdued delivery is moving.
He also exhibits an extraordinary vocal control over the slowest of drumbeats in Polly Come Home, beautifully executed in a manner that would astound anyone ready to write him off as a rock dinosaur. Krauss, meanwhile, sounds more shrill and vulnerable in her solo number on Trampled Rose, while lending the distinctive bluegrass-inflected tones of her violin to Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us.
Yet it’s where the two sing together that the real revelations come. The softly murmured opener Rich Woman is truly moving, for listening to the lyrics it’s easy to imagine Plant bellowing them out in front of a stadium of thousands in his heyday. Not now – this is a far subtler model, and the lightly brushed guitar that punctuates the verses works a treat.
Another faster duet that works well is Gone, Gone, Gone, more country than blues in the way the vocals open up in the chorus, Plant unusually playing second fiddle to the dreamy whooshes of Krauss. Yet again it works extremely well, the feeling that the two singers listen intently to each other all the time. And in this the supporting musicians play their part – guitarists Marc Ribot and Norman Blake, Mike Seeger on various instruments, bassist Dennis Crouch and Jay Bellerose on drums.
All are responsible for what is a rather wonderful and touching record of duets, chosen by producer T-Bone Burnett with the singers in mind. All involved have created one of the most unusual and surprisingly moving records I have heard in some time.