Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand

cover artJust before I popped Raising Sand in and uploaded it to my music library, I mentioned in my blog that I was going to review it. Two people responded immediately, and they couldn’t be more different: age, political leanings, upbringings, professions and musical tastes. They said precisely the same thing, in the same words: I can’t stop playing this.

Raising Sand, the combined (and formidable) talents of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, earns that comment from two women whose taste I respect enormously. In fact, I get just why they can’t stop playing it; the damned thing is exquisite. In places, it hits a note that’s very nearly perfection.

This CD works as well as it does largely, I think, because of its producer. I’m not a fan of producers who insist on Putting Their Mark on their work; dude, you want me to recognise your work, go play something. If I’m listening to Born to Run, I want to hear Bruce Springsteen, not Jon Landau. A great producer, in my mind, should be invisible, a support structure and a guide for the artists. T Bone Burnett is everything a producer should be.

Burnett’s a musician. He understands singers, he gets production, he groks what makes up the right band for the right project. I’m familiar with him from (the San Francisco music festival) Hardly Strictly Bluegrass a couple of years back. He sat in with Roger McNamee’s old band, the Flying Other Brothers, for a lovely homage to Jerry Garcia, a nifty version of the Dead’s “Sugaree.” He was making a solid rep for himself at the time, and he’s earned it. Every kudo Raising Sand has fielded is merited.

The melding of Plant’s voice with Krauss’s is close to divine inspiration. Burnett has taken Plant’s long-ago tendency to push it, jettisoning subtlety in favour of drama and full use of his range, and put it firmly where it belongs for this project; that would be elsewhere. There’s a beautiful maturity to Plant’s voice on this CD, a suggestion of rue and remembrance, a touch of vocal five o’clock shadow. It’s a new flavour for Plant, and I heartily approve.

Alison Krauss is, well, she’s Allison Krauss. I spent a minute or three trying to find a remembered instance where her voice didn’t raise all the hair on the back of my neck in the best possible way, and I couldn’t. She’s always been this good.

There are no weak spots on this CD, either in the song selection or in the supporting band Burnett has put together. While “Please Read The Letter” got the earliest attention, the entire disc works just as well. A Krauss solo vocal, “Trampled Rose,” has so much power, it left me shaken. Plant’s solo on “Fortune Teller” is virile, gritty, oddly playful; the slam and grind of “Nothin’ ” will kick your legs out from under you.

But it’s what Burnett has achieved with the blend of the two voices, on pairings like “Letter” and “Killing the Blues,” that will make this CD one that stays in the memory for a good long time. The production is so light, so elegant, it’s a marvel it manages to be so passionate. But passionate is what it is.

And damn, look at me — I can’t stop playing it.

(Rounder, 2007)

Deborah Grabien

Deborah Grabien can claim a long personal acquaintance with the fleshpots — and quiet little towns — of Europe. She has lived and worked and hung out, from London to Geneva to Paris to Florence, and a few stops in between. But home is where the heart is. Since her first look at the Bay Area in 1969, she’s always come home to San Francisco. In 1981, after spending some years in Europe, she came back to Northern California to stay.

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