Raising Sand: A bloated effort, but an important one

The first side of this record sucks so bad it ruins the entire album.

“Rich Woman” lurches with each pulsing bass note, as if hunting in a folk “Maneater” fashion, Robert Plant and Krauss drawl with dark-sarcasm, snide remarks and tongues that warble like a Theremin. Even if the music is different, who can deny Plant’s dour mood as of late? The dude’s been down in the dumps, crawling through the muck with his Strange Sensation of fuzzing, lowtone, heavy vibes of worldbeat and folk-rock and mud is usually on the sheet music. On “Rich Woman” it’s all dialed up to Applachia. Plant and Allison Krauss’ spin webs of fate, true Charlottes of Doric drama, and the lead guitar surges and retreats on its solo, a low-fuel lamp flame, sniffing its last vapors of oil before snuff-out, and and did I mention that the bass is still pulsing all the way through?

It’s momentum cannot be stopped unless someone really tried to kill the blues. Well, flip over to the next and it reads “Killing the Blues.” Goddamnit.

And they  tear down any momentum that this record had built in that first cut—by midway, the purported bluegrass singing is imperceptible and uninteresting to a shoegaze level—and if bluegaze is the future than right now the future sucks. Bluegaze for the loss. “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” can’t even save you now, despite Krauss regaining form and carouselling her hands across a creole-fiddle rhythm like a crystal ball in a N’awlin’s bauble shop. The music is slow and nobody likes slow after a buzzkill. Good music ruined by terrible pacing. And then “Polly Comes Home” to drive the point home—not a terrible slow song—but as the fourth cut on the new record? Usually there’s one by now—but this is three for four of slowburn bluegrass songs before the halfway point!—the record chokes on its on own quickly coagulating veins. Like pumping blood to the heart has become a struggle. It’s dark if it’s playing to an audience and it’s boring for any other reason. The most likely reason this record slogs so hard by track four? ‘Cuz. And there ain’t nothing I can do about ‘cuz. It’s music (not even good music) killed by pacing.

But here and now, a promise will be made: under no circumstances hitherto or hereafter wherein I have been captured and submitted to tortures varying from physical to psychological to musical to chemical to metaphysical or even, God forbid, zoological, will I utter the words “I” and “like” and “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On).” Surely, it is a bluegrass banger, a square-dance swinger, a foxtrotting four-beat and a quibbling quickstep. Wiggling and waving its way across the hopping hickory hardwood floor where grassroots can dance under the mountaintop carnival tents. It’s pure, it’s solid and it knows how to cha-cha-cha. The guitarwork bounces on the trampoline strings, loosely strung for more give and jump. But the singing is flat—not a problem when the tunes feature instrumentation of some caliber, but when the guitars are mixed are so low, it brings out the imperfections in Krauss’ and Plant’s warbling, cracking attempts at a higher register, so much so it feels like they’re mailing it in by the end of the cut. Does it hurt that the cut is also a cover of the Everly Brothers? No. Does it hurt that their interpretation drags it a little too much towards country pop? No, it’s good music ruined by terrible mastering.

By “Through the Morning, Through the Night,” Plant, Krauss and T-Bone Burnett hear the desperate prayers, the pleading yelps, the cries for mercy and thus decide to shake it up by slowing it the fuck down again. It is at this point that my head thuds on to my desk. A slump of defeat that this disc cannot be won against.

This record can be better—but as it stands, the first six tracks are a pêle-mêle mess in quarter time. Nearly everything on Side 1 is just awash with poor decisions from the pace to the mixing. But then the needle stops, raises, and slides back to wait for the flip—“fwoomph”—a woosh of the wind and Side 2 is there: a breath of fresh air—even if it doesn’t seem so. “Please Read the Letter” is just what was needed; a slow song—done right. It takes that thumping bass of “Rich Woman” and slows the kickbeat down, allowing the violin to take in the ambience and fill out the lyrics better than an earlier rendition with Jimmy Page from Walking into Clarksdale (the second Plant + Page record that…uh…well we don’t talk about Walking into Clarksdale). The stage drama story is worthy of a soap—but still a soap that will keep eyes glued to the screen, and it works because Robert Plant and Krauss finally find their harmonies together. However they quash the momentum with “Trampled Rose,” a cover that would drain even Tom Waits of blood. An eerie ghost song, a sonic that calls in the same way Loma’s self-titled debut or Sampha’s Process calls: a slow, moribund dirge—except that by now the dearth of music has grated the ears to numbness. And Tom Waits is only pale now because this rendition is just plain boring. Perhaps this record is a testament to the Blues: an utter disappointment in place of grand elation. This is Robert Plant, damnit! Krauss should be gliding her violin to that honeytrickle voice he’s found. But no, the melodies are rock hard, or simply gone. Cobweb musicality for the most of the record makes the heart sour and the spirit shrivel.

With “Fortune Teller,” the bouncing guitar of “Rich Woman” is back for a Delta blues shakedown, but after starting the record in such a bad way, it’s no use. The guitars can twinkle on “Stick with Me Baby,” they can shred on “Nothin’,” they can swing on “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson” and jangle on “Your Long Journey.” And Krauss can be there every step of the way vocally and with fiddle—but no matter how crisp and clean Side Two sounds, its vinyl face should be every bit worn as Side One’s would be a clean sheet of black. The only solace between these grooves should be found in Plant’s bluegrass reinvigoration. No mere thing to sneer at (it’s actually one of his three most important records—including Now & Zen and No Quarter): without this record, he might have indulged too hard on the trip-hop John Baggot keyboards he fancies so much. But in order to fix the record, I suggest taking “Rich Woman,” replacing “Trampled Rose” with “Sister Rosetta” and remastering “Gone Gone Gone” and then sticking them on a tighter and far more effective nine-song package (snipping out “Killing the Blues,” “Poly Come Home,” and “Though the Morning,” too).

As it stands, however, the Raising Sand released by Rounder Records is as bloated as its Grammy accolades—and could’ve done with some reorganization before mass distribution.

Robert Plant and Allison Krauss – Raising Sand

Album Artist: Robert Plant & Allison Krauss

Producer: T-Bone Burnett

Label: Rounder

Year: 2007

Genre: Bluegrass, Folk Rock

Tracklist:

  1. “Rich Woman”
  2. “Killing the Blues”
  3. “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”
  4. “Polly Come Home”
  5. “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)”
  6. “Through the Morning, Through the Night”
  7. “Please Read the Letter”
  8. “Trampled Rose”
  9. “Fortune Teller”
  10. “Stick with Me Baby”
  11. “Nothin’”
  12. “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson”
  13. “Your Long Journey”