Lullaby: A capstone for Plant’s ceaseless career

robert-plant-lullaby-and-the-ceaseless-roarIt should be stated: this is my favourite record Plant’s ever signed his name to.

Further, it’s the best record he’s ever done—and that’s including Led Zeppelin. A pause, one word of incredulity and the question en suite:

“What!” Rings the first bell.
LED ZEPPELIN III EXISTS!” Lights the rest.

Yes, yes, yes, to tell the town, it must seem heretical! But this denies a powerful, intricate journey Plant has enjoyed since the end of his epic of Gods amongst men, as a bard of the beserkergangs waxing with the waves of each great stadium surge, each tidal thrust of Page’s many axes, the smack of Bonham’s maces, the remedies of John Paul Jones’ pagan medicine bag. Rambling on solo and consorting with Phil Collins in a frequent but inconsistent manner, Plant’s Eighties records were solid but unspectacular, his backing bandmates always bringing elements to bear, but no solid artistic vision outside of a simple directive: “not Zeppelin.”

And try as he might, but the spectre of Zeppelin would haunt him throughout the early Nineties—him only finally accepting it with the monumental No Quarter collaboration with Jimmy Page. From there, Americana, delta blues, dervish, Berber and roots rock began to swirl and come together more easily to him, instead of striving to transfigure his past away, Plant assumed the head job of an alchemist’s guild containing to, a lesser or greater extent brewing cauldron after cauldron of ergot bubbles from the slopes of Applachia to the sands of Mali to the streets of Marrakesh and back now to the black hills in Wales. This wizened son of Baldr, fair-haired-turned-silver wears his route: toes tapping, shoed in Appalachian leather, voice coaxing, coated in soft Kashmir, wrists weaving, frilled in West African silk, legs loose, lined with Welsh wool. In his hands are a bendir—his percussive addition that outdoes a simple tambourine man.

It’s all there on lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar. Commencing with brooding bayou rock, blossoming Celtic chantries of doom, finishing the frenetic mania of a Jajoukan dervish with guitars whistling each note in steamboat blues. Every step—and misstep—is represented. Even the adventure-prone production belies a similar approach to Shaken ‘N’ Stirred.

Yes, Carry Fire is the record that receives more acclaim, but lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar is by far the better album. The former does its title justice, it carries fire and continues an impressive run of personal success since The Mighty ReArranger (a record that just sounds more and more divine every listen), Carry Fire is the melting pot in full action: everything starts to really goop together. But that can leave some songs wanting for form. lullaby, meanwhile, lacks not in form—the transitions from style to style are noticeable, yet seamless—Plant had not yet begun his full work with elements, instead continuing his travail in things with elements bled in: “Little Maggie” with its work-song wracked guitar and wailing riti; “Rainbow” with its pounding percussive sections; “Pocketful of Golden,” with its echoing sentiments of a cut 46 years its senior; “Turn It Up” with Liam “Skin” Tyson’s and Justin Adam’s menacing riffwork; “A Stolen Kiss” with John Baggot’s piano sounding just as glass textures: smooth yet stark; “Poor Howard,” with its banjo soaring amongst a digital rereading of Lead Belly;  “Up On Hollow Hill” and “House of Love” with their death-march haunt of Dreamland; “Arbaden” with Baggot’s travail to chew up  “Little Maggie” and spit it back out by the bits.

The songs all follow the greater evolution of twelve-bar blues and roots rock, but the sheer number of elements gives this now-classic music form modern wings, flying past any turbulent swirl of too much instrumentation. Each has its part, consequently even the conventional sounds new and fresh—the guitars and synthesizers and pianos are a soil base, but more often the kologo, ritis, bendirs, Moogs, djembes, tehardants come to mix within the loam as rhythmic and sonic clay. The largely African-based bells and whistles are than played as—well to make another metaphor—if these instruments were alive, then Adams, Tyson and Juldeh Camara play these to within an inch. Absorbent and sponged with the scarlet of a bluesman’s fingertips, the clay rusts with blood, as if the very ground itself bleeds this music. To lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar, all the earth and sea and sky produced the record, elemental to the last.

The record only trembles at “Embrace Another Fall” and “Somebody There” but nothing feels wrong with the former’s dirge and the latter’s punchiness. (“Somebody There”, as Murdoc Niccals would say, serves as a “very genuine pop moment.”*) Both showcase a finality to their Side. “Embrace Another Fall” leaves listeners in the depths of despair only to be shocked back to life with “Turn It Up.” So too does “Somebody There” never beget a musical, it denotes a time to rest and recharge before a harrowing and satisfying ultimate Side C.

For most lovers of Percy Plant, this record can be conflated with his career path since the loss of his best friend, John Henry Bonham. There seems very little reason not to—if Bonham was a beating heart ripped from the core of a band, then it is only natural that Plant was very tender in dealing with the gaping crevice since. But Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters are living proof to the value in musical exploration, in studying elements outside of the conventional Western then finding the harmonics between them.

Full, earthy, warm, cold, gusting, soothing, this record is all the journeys of a Viking who survived, written into a succinct 49-minute saga.

Album Artist: Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters
Producer: Self-Produced
Label: Nonesuch/ Warner
Genre: Psychedelic Folk, Worldbeat
Tracklist:

  1. “Little Maggie”
  2. “Rainbow”
  3. “Pocketful of Golden”
  4. “Embrace Another Fall”
  5. “Turn It Up”
  6. “A Stolen Kiss”
  7. “Somebody There”
  8. “Poor Howard”
  9. “House of Love”
  10. “Up on the Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur)
  11. “Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)

*Addendum: This was written in early, early 2018 and I have since disavowed pop as a genre in near totality

Band of Joy: Something Comes From Nothing

band-of-joyTry as one might, Wikipedia is a hard nut to crack—cracking its shell to find an article about oneself or something one is involved in means that the recorded thing was widely known enough to merit it.

For that reason, Band of Joy is a well-documented group, a supremely well-documented group simply because it was one of the original containers of Robert Plant and John Bonham, two Black Country boys that would come to form half of the nucleus of Led Zeppelin. There are current bands that tear up the local scenes, yet a band that did nothing—not like the Monkees level of nothing, mind you, they actually did some things like albums and T.V. shows, regular celebrity things, despite being a band about nothing, nothing but the weirdness of White America in the 1960’s and in that way, they’re kind of like the Kardashians of sixities pop, but I digress—a band that did nothing has blurbs more than the most successful independent music acts .

Sometimes the power of the Zeppelin brand confuses and astounds me.

Because that band that did as much nothing as Band of Joy now has a name worn like hand-me-down Nepalese sweaters, sure it’s comfortable to say that Robert Plant and Buddy Miller wear the thing well—they do more with it in than Chris Brown or Paul Lockey or Kevyn Gammond ever did. The only reason Robert Plant never participated in the two 70’s reunion records—Gammond and Lockey’s affair with basic bitch Dadrock—he was in the biggest show in town in ’78 and by the ‘80’s he was tired of plucking the roots-rock hairs from his chest, tryna find a reason to sing about how a basic bitch ruined his déjà-blue ass. To really explain how Band of Joy (’78) sound, think of Captain Beyond’s last album (Dawn Explosion) and realize that it is a gem of basic bitch Dadrock, a Coachella girl worth remembering—easy conversation, shared hobbies, a penchant for Santana—it can’t get much better than that. Those are solid interest blocks to start an out-of-festival relationship (read: friends—maybe with benefits) and watch where it goes. And if that album hasn’t rung between your ears, well then goddamn go and listen to it because Band of Joy ’78 wishes it could be as good as that album—and that album is totally non-essential to the Captain Beyond record collection. A collection of only three studio records, two live ones and a demo compilation. It’s not the record ever but it’s Band of Joy’s best shot at relevancy.

 

 

That is, until Band of Joy saw sweet daylight again in 2010, released by Robert Plant and his Band of Joy. Chris Brown, Paul Lockey and Kevyn Gammond had no part in the release of Plant’s first solo record off the Es Paranza label. Instead, it’s branded with the cattlestamp of Rounder or Decca (whichever was closer to the US or UK, I s’ppose) and herded together after Plant’s time in Nashville and Los Angeles with Allison Krauss. Thirty years after the fact, Plant was content to pluck the reedy folk whiskers from his chin. But instead of Welsh blackgrass stubble, he’s tugging up the lanky, windy bluegrass, with his Band of Joy. Not anyone else’s—well, maybe Buddy Miller’s but that’s just because Planty’s too busy up on stage groovin’ like only a sexagenarian with a hip still left can. He ain’t go no time to band lead, hence Miller.

A Nashville blues, country and folk virtuoso, Miller once lent a hand for Raising Sand and  came back to round off the production of Band of Joy (’10) with ease—using baritone, Mando and good ol’ electric guitars to echo the dull, heavy, whetstone rhythms found on Dreamland, Mighty ReArranger and Raising Sand and keep the somber pulse going. That’s not the really new bit—what is new is the autumnal dance that Plant’s lower register has managed to perfect since Dreamland. It’s firmly added a spring to its step from Side Two of Raising Sand and it’s nice to hear Plant jumping at the bits to swing or to swoon with it. The vocals of  “Angel Dance,” “Central Two-O-Nine,” and “You Can’t Buy My Love,” all twinkle and groove to varying tempos in earnest, of “Falling in Love Again,” “The Only Sound That Matters” they slow down and whisper full and rich into the ear, of “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday” and “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” they dote on domesday and fate to each steely note while of “Monkey” they find themselves a temporarily embarrassed Goth at a folk festival. And even still, it sounds like a b-side from Dreamland, a fate better than most Goth-folk can hope for, yet funny that it’s considered his first faire, when Dreamland’s done it all before.

 

As is tradition for the new Plant records of the mid-2000’s the vast majority of the tracklist includes covers and traditional rearrangements (read: everything but “Central Two-O-Nine”), reworking songs from Los Lobos, Low, Townes Van Zandt, Theodore Tilton, the Babineaux brothers and Townes van Zandt. By now, it should be clear that Might ReArranger was a clear outlier of the Plant discography from 1994 to 2014—surrounded on all sides by records stuffed with reworks and reinterpretations until lullaby… And the Ceaseless Roar broke the levy and flooded the discography with some long-awaited original material. Band of Joy (’10) is very much a standard Plant record of his turn-of-the-millennium era, he’s just changed out his band for the record. And while Darrell Scott may wax his lap steel guitar to its most opaque or Byron House may whack his bass guitar into didgeridoo-type drones or Marco Giovino inhabits each cut with on-beat percussion or Patty Griffin and Bekkah Bramlett may sing like spectres on the end of Plant’s lower register or Buddy Miller may manage to wrap it all into nice package with a cute li’l bow n’ all, it still sounds like this is the re-reburnishing of a car marque for a car that’s not quite all figured out yet.

Even the internal mechanics are still figuring out how well each part will work together out in the field. The band is all good parts trying to figure a rhythm together. How fast are the pistons going to pump? How quick will the transmission transition between gears? How cool will the engine stay with the radiator? How solidly will the chassis rest on the suspension? Hmmph, regulations would probably stop that car from ever setting a tire on the road, but the metaphor remains: this band hadn’t quite figured itself out yet on the recording.

And yet what’s worse is that the business folded as soon as it opened. Four years later Plant will return to England, restart his Strange Sensation and get cookin’. Band of Joy was closer than ever at becoming more than some rusty badge, and now it might never get the chance to actually be something greater ever again. And lest I sound like a fanboy for a Band of Jacksquat, let it be known that Band of Joy was an opportunity folded on. Both lullaby and Carry Fire incorporate elements of this record, no doubt about it, but they work that trip-hop, alt-rock, worldbeat angle more than Band of Joy ever did or probably could. Conversely, Band of Joy remains one of only two albums wherein Plant runs the folk hillsides like a Bacchae, oblivious to the rest of his musical interests as he consumes American Appalachia from the root to the fruit.

And he sounds pretty happy about it, Wikipedia chronicles be damned.

Band of Joy by Robert Plant and the Band of Joy

Label: Rounder, Decca

Producer: Robert Plant, Buddy Miller

Tracklist:

  1. “Angel Dance”
  2. “House of Cards”
  3. “Central Two-O-Nine”
  4. “Silver Rider”
  5. “You Can’t Buy My Love”
  6. “Falling in Love Again”
  7. “The Only Sound That Matters”
  8. “Monkey”
  9. “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday”
  10. “Harm’s Swift Way”
  11. “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”
  12. “Even This Shall Pass Away”

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”

 

Carry Fire: Just as golden as it glitters

Robert Plant is an incredible talent magnet.

Almost every album features a lineup of respectable musicians maybe not as esteemed as his former Zeppelin bandmates but even better: Plant bring the A-game outta every-freakin’-musician he finds. He’s picked up the uncanny ability to assemble skilled bands at will and change out parts as his next album needs, a farcry from the stability of Led Zeppelin.

Does this mean the baker’s bread carousel keeps turning? Yes, but the bread never goes stale, either. Recently, however, the carousel has stopped with his backing band of Sensational Space Shifters. And the bread has matured into something scrumptious. Carry Fire confirms it—late career Robert Plant is aged and exquisite. His vocal power is geothermal, replete with the warmth of earth, sprouting from the fertile rootsy arrangements planted in the richness of Appalachian, Moroccan and Celtic folksoil and tilled until sublime.

Hinting of all but being none.

Not only Robert Plant ages well, though, as his Sensational Space Shifters’ brand of spices snaps like a whip and unleashes their skills on this sophomoric essay. No single cut strikes me as being entirely inspired by a single angle. Plant’s last album, lullaby… And The Ceaseless Roar could seduce sleep and induce energy. The cuts winded with the garden path—switching back between the Celtic, the Appalachian and the Moroccan. They may have charged through a rock wall one-by-one but that just made it easier to see where they were charging from. Moreover, almost every track was worthy of the pricetag.

This phenomenon continues throughout Carry Fire. Some coals burn hotter than others, but none flameout. Instead, they move through the skin with the comfort of a warm winter treat, a hot chocolate for the soul.

Carry Fire sits heads and shoulders above the twisting lullaby, glowing confidently through all the well-wrought and emerald foliage of its music. Plant’s voice takes the hand and leads from “The May Queen” all the way to “Heaven Sent.” Unlike his previous Peter Rabbit adventures, he never wanders too far into one vegetable patch or another.  Instead he stays on the path, rarely straying, and finding exactly what he needs.

His lyrics are a lush rush of scarlet imagery, belying passionate traveler’s observations of a carved-up world:

The Russians, the Americans, the British and the French/
They’re carving up the world again, it’s getting kind of tense/
A whole lotta posture and very little sense/
It’s no surprise they hide behind a wall and not a fence.

He doesn’t soar on high notes, he’s gliding in register. Instead of Plant’s voice working the emotional grindstone, it’s his guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson, who pushes the heartrock to the summit. Plant’s empowered soft vocals provide a sensitivity and warmth of the hearth while Tyson’s plucky guitars still invoke emotional majesty. Tyson’s riffwork caputres moods like lightning in a bottle—his fingers sail the fretboard, modulating the riding waves of the strings. From the melancholic “Dance With You Tonight,” to the daring “Carving Up The World Again,” to the inspiring “Bluebirds over the Mountain,” really, damn near the whole album invites listeners to become a fan.

The musical rapport between Plant and him is perhaps the greatest evidence of Plant’s stadium rock past, too. Plant knows how to work with a guitarist, better still, Tyson knows how to reciprocate. And it’s not just with Plant that Tyson shines, as the stringsman trades changes with the moog of John Baggott on “Dance With You Tonight” and works to make sure the cut’s first and last words come from a fireside synthesizer.

The result? Every bit as romantic as ecstatic.

When guitars and synthesizers need a break, the album lets Redi Hasa’s cello and Baggott’s piano find “A Way With Words” before giving way to Justin Adam’s spinetingling oud on the dramatic “Carry Fire.” It’s Plant au Maroc.

This record doesn’t contain a cut run of good tracks, it is one, peppered with different garden spices, each one just as fresh as the next and never falling off until “Heaven Sent,” which fades gently. It’s no crime, but it’s no strength either. I feel bad for those who dislike spicy food, though. They’ll be obliged work through spices foreign and unpleasant to the taste buds. I, however, will gladly toast Carry Fire as Plant’s crowning solo achievement.

Since the millennium’s turn, Plant’s musical Odyssey picked up on the leftover threads of the Iliadic Now and Zen. After sailing the Mediterranean, losing himself in America and beaching once again on Welsh shores, Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters stir it all together into a fluid, 48 minutes of earthy musicality under the influencing West, East and South winds. And really, Plant’s ability to improve with damn near each solo effort deserves every bit of commendation. Where Jimmy Page imprisoned himself within the Trojan vaults of Led Zeppelin, Plant took the chance for freedom and ran with it. In 1980, Plant went on musical sabbatical in search of post-Zeppelin meaning. In 1994, Plant found a worldbeat muse worth pursuing while returning to roots on No Quarter. And in 2017 he vindicated that muse with Carry Fire.

A record every bit as powerful and mercurial as its wizened Baldr of a benefactor, every bit as rootsy as his career and every bit as golden as it glitters.

Robert Plant and the Sensation Space Shifters – Carry Fire

Label: Nonesuch/Warner

Producer: Robert Plant

Tracklist:

  1. “The May Queen”
  2. “New World…”
  3. “Season’s Song”
  4. “Dance With You Tonight”
  5. “Carving Up the World Again… a wall and not a fence”
  6. “A Way With Words”
  7. “Carry Fire”
  8. “Bones of Saints”
  9. “Keep It Hid”
  10. “Bluebirds Over the Mountain”
  11. “Heaven Sent”

Mighty ReArranger: Plant waxes fate with fortune

r-1020477-1292760039-jpegIn 2002, Robert Plant was in his own world, recovered from blockbuster tours with Jimmy Page, summarizing his musical influences and writing his new material.

Or at least new some material—Dreamland works mostly in covers, but the material was no less reinvigorating. Moving past the arena scream of his late-eighties work, the album put him in the mood to be moody. Brooding and dark, these words continue to describe Mighty ReArranger. Waxing politics, religion and fate together, old man Plant continued to throw himself at albums with an energy enviable to his former forme d’or.

Perhaps it’s because he tapped into the Zeppelin swagger and teamed it with his wizened world and folk influence. Perhaps it’s because old age crafted new fences around which a creative mind needs to examine a new approach.

Certainly, Plant’s voice lowered in tone—no man, however golden, can survive three-plus decades hollering and leaping: “hey, hey, mama, I say the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove. Eventually, that heavy mama will break the trampoline. Eventually, the speaker will blow out. Plant’s voice thus moved from black women wailing and tall tales of a rambler to the slow, low burning insights of a man who has seen the rock ‘n’ roll world for all it’s worth, all it’s false promise, all it’s real excess.

On Mighty ReArranger, Plant’s conceited view of rock ‘n’ roll’s excess mirrors a startling truth: the excess of the real world. Political, social, spiritual—2005 was a year of continued excess. Post-Cold War promises of peace sterling turned to fool’s gold in the form of interventionist wars. Instead of ideology, the world fought concepts. Terror, consumerism, climate change, all ideas unseen, but still real.

Thematically, the “Mighty Rearranger” is a mythical figure guiding the fate humanity and all along the lyrics Plant wonders if the only true human theme is conflict. Plant and his new backing band the Strange Sensation wonder how holy cities of paradise continue to transform into living hells. A pessimist’s “What’s Going On” with a bounding bendir beat and a bassline as nasty as the wars around it, Plant swoons over the damage done by families of one tribe to families of “Another Tribe.”

Gliding over Liam “Skin” Tyson’s slide guitar, Plant wonders if these tribes—mayhap sworn enemies—can still break bread with each other. Feasting on the imagery of “Shine It All Around,” it’s easy to wonder if fighting terror creates victim who know you as nothing but the image of terror.

But before long the slide gives way to a riff that sands the castle of dreams off the beach.

Leaving the beachside haven, but still in the Fertile Crescent, Plant waxes McLean’s heartland imagery with the scratching heat of Tyson’s filtered guitars and Billy Fuller’s bassline—ever erratic—to deliver a political scathing. Plant no longer needs the ghouls or the ghost of a departed Porl Thompson to scare listeners—just a material world confronted with immaterial questions; ethics to terrify the unethical. Lyrically, “Freedom Fries” represents the best phrase turning of Plant’s career:

“Freedom fries and burns and scars
The liberator goes too far
Freedom fries and screams and yells
The promised land is promised hell”

Nearly 800 years later Plant and his Strange Sensation turn jingoistic evangelism on its head and spin it dizzy. Now the crusade is cursed, everything goes the wrong way: the liberator is now the oppressor, freedom fries instead of feeds, promised lands “promise hell.”

When chewing on the carcass of political excess no longer feeds the Strange Sensation’s muse, they move on to the music industry. The “Nirvana” of the 90’s has caught up to Plant and made itself a companion to “One More Cup of Coffee” in “Tin Pan Valley.” Reverb, meet revulsion: the moody, reflective Moogs of John Baggot greet the machismo of gladiatorial rock. But it can’t be helped, even Plant wonders if these images are the fruits of his creative labor.

Mighty Rearranger tires itself out on these images in excess and wisely takes a step back. Plant decides to reopen his insights into the spiritual world. Instead of marooning himself on the work of the Mighty Rearranger, he muses on the myth itself. What occurs can only be described as Physical Graffiti resumed: the dunes of Bedouin roll and weave ahead, “Skin” Tyson shows some teeth with a lap steel guitar and Justin Adam gnashes with a tehardent, twanging sounds of Tuareg people tattoo “The Enchanter” up and down, scoring arcane harmonies and then—silence. But not for long, Baggot’s on the Moog again with a coda to rival Plant’s old warlock friend, John Paul Jones.

And by now Plant must be done, he has to be!

Yet no, after splitting the magic of the sky open, the Strange Sensation decides to touch the cosmos and “Dance in Heaven.” Featuring the swank and swagger of guitars on Houses of the Holy with the spin of Led Zeppelin III’s Welsh dervish, the cut then dips the toes into the pool of arena-era Plant.

From here, though the album gives its last gasps. By “Somebody Knocking,” the record cuts off a tehardent solo that deserved more respect. On “Let The Four Winds Blow” time changes confuse punk chords and result in a choppy piece. At least “Mighty Rearranger” features the return of the Baggot—his boogie-woogie fills paying for this track’s price in full. Out of all Strange Sensation, Baggot has the most fun by Plant’s side. Still, the cut aspires to touch heaven and the choral build makes contact.

By album’s end though, it feels Plant still is searching for his perfect solo album. Mighty Rearranger confirms he found his path, however, and sounds determined to follow it through.

Quick Impressions: This isn’t Plant’s best record. But it is a filling one and it is a feeling one. It’s also his only spiritual successor to his early-to-mid Zeppelin career. For that alone, it is to be recommended.

Producers: Phil Johnstone, Robert Plant, Mark Stent

Genre: Worldbeat, Hard Rock, Progressive Rock

Tracklist:

  1. “Another Tribe”
  2. “Shine It All Around”
  3. “Freedom Fries”
  4. “Tin Pan Valley”
  5. “All The King’s Horses”
  6. “The Enchanter”
  7. “Takamba”
  8. “Dancing In Heaven”
  9. “Somebody Knocking”
  10. “Let The Four Winds Blow”
  11. “Mighty Rearranger”
  12. “Brother Ray”

Dreamland: Robert Plant, cryptkeeper

Résultats de recherche d'images pour « dreamland robert plant image »For the aging rocker, growing grey contains nothing but doubt right where it’s last needed: in the recording booth.

Once a surefire bet, the studio becomes a shaman’s table. And no matter how many combinations add up to seven, neither the musician nor the witch doctor deal in hard numbers. Confidence, once a font, becomes a puddle. Questions appear: Will the creative well run dry? When does vocal prowess fade and guitar leads blow out?

Seen Rod Stewart lately? Mick Jagger? Steven Tyler? What about Brian Johnson? None of these artists have released an original LP for years. Either relying on the royalty checks from albums long since passed or simply touring a refined hitlist to rock out their last years on Earth. It’s the pinch of old age: the creativity squelched out of the brain, dripped across the calendar, painting certain days; besmirching others. After the thrilling No Quarter with fellow Led alumi Jimmy Page, and subsequent world tours, the duo followed up with the more rootsy yet limpid Walking Into Clarksdale in 1997 and in 2001, Robert Plant felt this squeeze. It seemed this once-golden god of rock, this Baldr-turned-Odin, had begun to grasp at straws in a shallow cup. The blues-berry juice devoured, the taste of Zeppelin remnants now bitter.

Poor fools, this cup goes deep, deep, deep down. All the way to the dark bellows of Zeppelin I, swimming in the black water. No mere dead rock ‘n’ roll, but a living, breathing creature of the cosmic deep. That creature is Robert Plant. In the water is Dreamland. As a record, it is a question. As an answer, it is a word: yes.

Backing himself with a new band aptly dubbed the Strange Sensation, 2001’s Robert Plant is a mystery. And his reply rebounds and resounds across the grotto with the tekk of a darbuka and twang of a guembri.

 

 

It’s not filled to the brim with originals. Nah, it’s a refuel on roots ’66. Bonnie Dobson’s “Morning Dew,” “Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee,” The Youngblood’s “Darkness, Darkness,” wait—cut through the psilocybin fog, and remember none of these cuts were originally released in ’66. But that doesn’t matter, because what does matter is how Plant retools these covers to storm over the cavern of your headphones, biting the rock with an acid rain and using reverberating instruments to echo through the dark recesses of each rework. It starts with “One More Cup of Coffee,” where Plant’s voice toys coyly with Dylan’s lyricism:

“And your pleasure knows no limit
Your voice is like a meadowlark
But your heart is like an ocean
Mysterious and dark”

This ominous valley creeps with a sinister air, Plant’s aural wickedness plays crypt keeper as Justin Adam’s guembri this way comes, winding along Cure alum Porl Thompson’s licentious, gothic licks. It’s spooky blues for Hallow’s Eve’s past.

Throw in John Baggot’s eerie keyboards and the cut is ready to take your hand straight to hell. Now a Plant regular, Baggot shines with his string compositions on “Morning Dew” and “Song to the Siren.” Stirring drama into the former cut, something the Grateful Dead never could, Baggot texturizes the acoustic guitars of Thompson and Adams, duetting in a way that only Cannonball and Coltrane’s saxophones could match.

None of Plant’s backing bands of the 80’s or 90’s can compare to this level of musicality, because this quintet works as a unit. Something has changed—something is clearer in focus, no longer shrouded in the midnight darkness. That something is Plant’s creative goals. So much for a lack of confidence. He finally knows where he wants to go and how to get there. After a score of running from his Zeppelin heritage, he’s back at it again with the Maghreb influences and the denseness of Physical Graffiti. Even the original tracks like “Funny In My Mind” and “Win My Train Fare Home” contain elements of the gloomiest Zeppelin tradition: meddling with old blues standards.

But at least this time there’s some damn credits.

 

For “Win My Train Fare Home,” it’s an actual medley. In fact, it’s a rambling man, reminiscing before coming home and giving his “Whole Lotta Love.” For the Bukka White-inspired “Funny In My Mind,” it’s a return to the same ripping, sonic chainsaw from “In My Time of Dying.”

But nothing will haunt this hollow more than the dusky cover of “Darkness, Darkness.” A slower, moodier, broodier “Stairway” of Plant’s career, Thompson’s guitar chews bones with ghoulish, wood-chipping appetite. Plant attempts a repeat of the trick on “Hey Joe,” but no matter how much fire and brimstone spits throughout that cover, it can’t match the graveyard shiver of “Darkness, Darkness.” The skeleton wants to shake out of the skin just thinking of that damn thing. And that’s how it is: across 10 cuts, Plant out-Cohen’s the dearly departed Leonard Cohen. He doesn’t ask if you want it darker. He just paints black over black over black.

It’s not his important album, it’s not even his best. But it does set the table for the latter half of Plant’s career, when the musicality mimics the mood and texture grinds with full force.

Producers: Phil Brown, Robert Plant

Tracklist:

  1. “Funny In My Mind (I Believe I’m Fixin’ To Die)”
  2. “Morning Dew”
  3. “One More Cup of Coffee”
  4. “Last Time I Saw Her”
  5. “Song to the Siren”
  6. “Win My Train Fare Home ( If I Ever Get Lucky)”
  7. “Darkness, Darkness”
  8. “Red Dress”
  9. “Hey Joe”
  10. “Skip’s Song”
  11. “Dirt in a Hole” (Bonus Track)
  12. “Last Time I Saw—Remix” (Bonus Track)

 

No Quarter: But a little help from some friends

This is not a Robert Plant solo album. But this, along with Now and Zen and Raising Sand is one third of the trilogy of important albums of Plant’s career.

This is not a Led Zeppelin album either—no matter how much I reference the band

For over a decade, the former frontman ran as far away as possible from the Zeppelin catalogue as he exited from his youthful Apollon rock career into the first steps of a muddled musical journey struggling with maturity. He attempted to climb new walls while still running into others. Arena rock became his muse, but it never really felt natural. Something was missing. The intense spirituality he exuded as the voice of Zeppelin had been replaced by an agnostic approach.

Neither here nor there, always going in circles with his inspirations. You would not know where he wanted to go because he did not even know where he wanted to go. No Quarter put an end to this dawdling and meandering pace to his career. It’s a reenergizing return to roots filled with mixing eastern and western influences, the sweet sound of Page’s guitar and grandiose orchestrations.

Railing off acoustic reworks that not only nail but transcend the Zeppelin versions, No Quarter features the acoustic hammer riff of a “Gallow’s Pole,” a seductive, snaking melody on “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” a climatically explosive “That’s The Way”,” and a “Four Sticks” beat that will pummel your brain into liquid until it drips out your ears.

 

 

I didn’t even care for songs like “That’s The Way” and “Gallow’s Pole” much, as Led Zeppelin III comes in at the bottom of my list of favourites (by way of disinterest rather than hate, to tell the truth). These songs never popped on that album. But now, in an acoustic yet orchestral setting these songs snap, crackle and pop with the electricity of hurdy-gurdy’s, strings, and tribal percussion. Huh, that’s pretty ironic when given thought.

Here’s the rub though: whether on the original or the reissue, the track list messes with cuts from the Unplugged recording.

The original cuts “Wah Wah” and “The Rain Song,” and my mouth still froths with the foam of rage by consequence. If any cut still proves that Page and Plant still have it, it lies in the pure yet calm, showering ecstasy of “The Rain Song.” The reissue cuts down “City Don’t Cry” and “Wonderful One” and cuts out a rendering “Thank You” that is also a wonderful one. Sorry but who cuts the two toweringly good original pieces by the unledded duo when “The Truth Explodes” (titled “Yallah” on the first issue) still screams on far too long.

And who cuts out “Thank You?” It may come second to “The Rain Song” on the ballads list, but that doesn’t mean that the latter should not delete the former. It kills me, it kills me.

What brings the listener back to life, though? The richness of Maghrebin instrumentation (even in “Yallah!”) deepens this album by the tens of fathoms, rather than just relying on the strength of old material refurbished to London and Egyptian orchestras. The most crucial, criminally missing element, however?  An orgasmic “When The Levee Breaks” is deleted from both editions. Kill me a little more softly, why dontcha boys? It comes down to preference choosing, but why you gotta make a man choose?

Problems aside this album contains some killer runs. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” starts the procession in suspense before dropping a mean-guillotine of a riff. Jimmy Page flows through “Thank You” into “No Quarter” and finishes with a mind-bender “Friends” render. Where Page’s guitar originally grew like wild mushrooms, it’s now opened by a mystical ney and backed up by the grandeur of two orchestras morphing to the cut’s needs.

Add in Plant’s vocals and this cut is sufficiently dosed.

 

But this capped excursion holds no water candle to the trip that is “Wonderful One” into the “Kashmir” to end all motherfucking “Kashmirs.” No other live version pulls together all the threads to this Maghrebin story book song and nothing ever will. It’s not the definitive version, that still goes to the Physical Graffiti cut, but damn if it is not a favourite. And it’s because the arrangements easily make up for what is lost: “No John Paul Jones? Don’t even sweat,” sings the string section with ballroom drama. “No John Bonham? No problem,” thunders the percussion, filling the ears with the sound of mad, charging Mamelouks.

It took this much to truly make a person forget that Bonzo died and Jonesy, criminally, never received a phone call to join the party. The record also led Zeppelin’s yin and yang on different paths, locking Page into a vault that sends out Zeppelin remasters every few years but finally opening the door for Plant’s love of Moroccan and roots influences. All while throwing in an orchestra.

Because why the hell not?

And really-actually-sincerely: I love that logic. Led Zeppelin has never been about reason, it’s all instinct, baby; and the instincts on an orchestra setting are so money my ears hear a ching-ching everytime this black circle, this CD, these MP3 files spin. The idea is bold, the effort is immense and the damn-near-flawless execution payouts big-time. Give this album a spin, then once the black circle, CD, MP3 files stop, spin ’em again. This album ages well and adds as a fantastic Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin companion piece.

In short: listen to this and let it rock your shit.

Producer: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant

Tracklist:

  1. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”
  2. “Thank You” (1994 issue)
  3. “No Quarter”
  4. “Friends”
  5. “Yallah” (“The Truth Explodes” on 2004 issue)
  6. “The Rain Song” (2004 issue)
  7. “City Don’t Cry”
  8. “Since I’ve Been Loving You”
  9. “The Battle of Evermore”
  10. “Wonderful One”
  11. “That’s the Way”
  12. “Wah Wah (2004 issue)
  13. “Gallows Pole”
  14. “Four Sticks”
  15. “Kashmir”

Fate of Nations: Robert Plant falls into pastiche

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Robert Plant’s early solo career wishes and washes more than a bar of soap.

Going back and forth yet producing a less-than-clean body of work. Some cuts feels impossibly stained while others sparkle and shine. Only one record (read: Now and Zen) remains clear on where it wants to go musically.

Manic Nirvana, for all its flaws, still could make the body sway with eighties arena rock swagger and showed some of the same musical progress as Now and Zen. But even then, it never transcended its well-sourced origins into something new.

But Fate of Nations is when the milk sours. The arena rock sound sounds dated and falls flat. Released way past eighties arena rock’s expiration date in 1993, it was a throwback to a sound that had accrued exactly zero nostalgia factor. Too late to rock ‘n’ roll, too soon to mystify. The rock ‘n’ roll world left reverb-heavy acoustics, cavernous guitar echoes and stadium shaking drums behind. Instrumentation muddied itself in the grunge and grime, drumkits sounded like a ramshackle assortment of pots and pans with vinyl lids. Fate of Nations features none of this. And while that’s fine, it reeks of sameness that Manic Nirvana and Now and Zen avoided. The tracklisting here is not killer, but there are highlights.

Lead cut “29 Palms” features not only one riff worth standing up for—but two! Two! The rest of the good half of cuts don’t even have shit for one. On “29 Palms,” however, the main chord progression and melodic fingerpicking of Kevin Scott MacMichael coo and cut at each other equally. Hell, even the solo is kind of good.

So that’s three-parts worth talking about.

Yet for all this obvious skill, the rest of the album doesn’t feature much talent. The riffwork on “Memory Song” wants to act tough but hits my chest with a tap before falling flat and flaccid before the ears.

There are tradeoffs, too: the ballad “If I Were A Carpenter” features an acoustic guitar worth noting, but Plant’s voice going from soothing to just mindless moaning. “The Greatest Gift” features some lovely orchestral strings and a tone-happy guitar solo by MacMichael, that continues into a Jeff Beck-esque effort on “Great Spirit,” resonating in Blow by Blow fashion. Both cuts bring to surface an island refuge in an ever-rising sea of blandness. But that’s not because of spectacular ability, they just avoid mediocrity. Every cut on this album does sound like a successor to Pictures at Eleven (more than can be said about Shaken ‘N’ Stirred) but they fall deeper and deeper into arena rock pitfalls. And the more they do this, the more they pass into pallid pastiche.

Ballads are there just because they must. The electric and acoustic guitars only try to shake caves because what else is a poor man’s David Gilmour to do? But that doesn’t much bother me.

Chris Blackwell’s disappearance from the mix is just criminal.

Keyboards? Forget ‘em, we ain’t got time for no stinkin’ keyboards. Not even if the album is 58 minutes of artistic limbo. I mean, my god, midway through the album I am begging it to be over. No harmonica melody or riff saves the soul from this musical purgatory. And that’s the rub. There’s skill here but it’s never employed well enough to create a coherently interesting album demanding attention. It fails to move the soul an inch by any metric and reveals that Plant needed to move away from this sound.

Fate of Nations is close to somewhat good, but closer to mediocrity. It finishes the middle chapter of Plant’s career with limpid energy. Ugh, next one please.

Producer: Chris Hughes, Robert Plant

Tracklist:

  1. “Calling to You”
  2. “Down to the Sea”
  3. “Come Into My Life”
  4. “I Believe”
  5. “29 Palms”
  6. “Memory Song (Hello Hello)”
  7. “If I Were a Carpenter”
  8. “Colours of a Shade”*
  9. “Promised Land”
  10. “The Greatest Gift”
  11. “Great Spirit”
  12. “Network News”

*UK Edition, bonus track on remastered US Edition

Manic Nirvana: Half the thought, twice the fun.

Image associée

This might be one of my favourite album covers ever

Alright. I’m just gonna come clean with this: put Manic Nirvana and Now and Zen shoulder to shoulder and I’d probably take Manic Nirvana in a heartbeat.

Yes, Now and Zen reintroduced us to Robert the musical explorer.

Yes, Now and Zen did more for Plant’s artistic direction.

And yes, Manic Nirvana never builds in that direction much further.

But man, whatever alchemy brewed in that renaissance apothecary was strong enough to create a second, unstable elixir that’s more fun than the first. Records can balance both a seriousness with riot-inducing sound but Manic Nirvana trades in Now and Zen’s serious tone for more of that riotous rock. Between the record’s raucous cuts like “Big Love,” “S S S & Q,” and “She Said” one would think this album reached its quota of tantric release. “Wrong!” wails the aptly manic “Nirvana,” in the throes of a sexual climax unheard since 1968’s Zeppelin I. Showcasing the vocal power that made Plants voice so compelling, each “love you” thrusts harder and faster and there’s nothing you can do about it.

 

But Plant’s not the only the one having some not-so-clean fun on this record, Doug Boyle’s riffs are bigger, nastier, dirtier and a metric shit ton more fun. Boy howdy, did he lose whatever timidity he still had on Now and Zen and just lets his guitar rip like a chainsaw. The album builds steam consistently, with only a slight misstep by cutting off “Nirvana” a little too soon. Not until “Anniversary,” which veers off into an eighties stadium sound better reproduced on “I Cried,” does the album tread into “meh” territory. But then an unexpected acoustic “Liars Dance” pulls the listener back in and it’s all good.

In fact, between this sentence and the last, I went back to listen to “Liars Dance” and scratch that, it’s not just all good—it’s fantastic. Acoustic Plant was a rare sound post-Zeppelin but give him some fingerpicking good melodies and damn does he do work.

It refreshes the taste buds to hear that again.

I do wonder if there was a similar idea Plant had with Shaken ‘N’ Stirred. Whereas he wanted to transmute a Principle of the Moments sound into peppier grooves, with Manic Nirvana, Plant wanted to distill a more straightforward sound from Now and Zen. To avoid any pitfalls, however, he relied mightily on his Now and Zen chemistry set, working at maximum to concentrate every possible rock’n’roll element of that sound.

 

 

And it sounds like more.

More Blackwell on drums, more Johnstone on keys, more Boyle on guitar, more Jones on bass and more Plant on vocals–all working like mad scientists. Excepting cuts like Now and Zen b-side “Tie Dye on the Highway,” a stadium swinging cover of “Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night” and the acoustic “Liars Dance,” the resulting record is more rock for less thought. On “Your Ma,” Plant even finds the time to figure out how to make appropriate references to his Zeppelin work. Lyrics. No need for a jarring eleven second montage. Just lyrical motifs.

No erratic, lockstep pace holds Manic Nirvana back, instead the Robert Plant express steams forth with no time to lose. In all its manic glory, no less.

This album may not challenge like its predecessor but it also realizes the tiring nature of that challenge. Pair that up with the steadier producer hands that Plant has thus far accrued and Manic Nirvana does better at being a rock record than Now and Zen does at being a rock fusion record.

Producer: Robert Plant, Phil Johnstone, Mark “Spike” Stent 

Tracklist:

  1. “Hurting Kind (I’ve Got My Eyes On You)”
  2. “Big Love”
  3. “S S S & Q”
  4. “I Cried”
  5. “She Said”
  6. “Nirvana”
  7. “Tie Dye on the Highway”
  8. “Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night”
  9. “Anniversary”
  10. “Liars Dance”
  11. “Watching You”

Note: “She Said” is not on the vinyl LP. *sadface*

Now and Zen: Was it really groundbreaking now or then?

So, this is the one.

This is the album that blew with an Icelandic gusto, chilling the spine of a generation that turned in their bell bottom blues for business shoes. Now and Zen receives many hands with index-fingers extended, all pointing at the album, insisting that it deserves a listen but never really saying why. Don’t tell me it’s because he rediscovered his roots. If Rod Stewart knew that get-out-of-jail card he would have dropped the synthesizers in 1982, gone to his backyard, dug up his roots and ate them. Just on the off-chance that he crapped out an album as good as Now and Zen.

(Actually. He already did that. In 1976. With A Night On The Town. Damn. Rod the Mod is fast. That don’t mean he’s good. That jury’s still out. My jury’s still out on whether it’s still Rod Stewart up there or just a shapechanger who saw Barry Manilow thinking it was Rod Stewart.)

To be clear, Now and Zen chances for blowing someone’s fucking mind are slim. Slimmer than that hair on your grandmother’s chin. Because like your grandmother, mid-80’s Robert Plant is ancient. So, just like your grandmother’s baby pictures, I sure as hell am not finding any vinyl copies of Now and Zen soon. Well, I might—you never know what vinyl hounds are going to worship next and if hipsters need a golden god, I guess Robert Plant’s mane d’or is something to pray for. My opinion on Robert Plant-worshipping child cults notwithstanding, Now and Zen is no Holy Grail. How do I know?

Well it’s real, so there’s the first clue. But for real, the elixir of Now and Zen cures nothing, barley a hint of anything sublime. It’s filled with good musical cocktail moments but something was off in that divine bartender’s hand.

Which leads to the second clue: Plant still didn’t quite understand how to balance his musical aspirations with his musical past. On the one hand, at least he’s trying to balance the two. On the other hand—well that hand is shaky and needs more time to steady.

The opening duo are focused and prayer ready. The choir on “Heaven Knows” wants me on my feet ready to worship in chorus while the guitars on “Dance on My Own” want me ready for the miracle that’s to come. Except not everything that comes really qualifies as a miracle of sound. Not until “Ship of Fools,” at least.

 

 

 

Hell, some of it even sounds akin to a begging for benediction.

Trying to like these middling middle cuts is to attempt to love a series of flameouts. They just look for instants, scenes to cling to. Instead of staying in the moment, Now and Zen tries to force moments. Like that moment when Plant tries to conjure his inner rockabilly on “Billy’s Revenge.” Ick. What did that drumline ever do to racket retaliation recorded in earsplitting dB? Or that moment when you realize “White, Clean and Neat” becomes a better descriptor for the noise coming out of the speakers. Or that moment when Plant’s entire, 11 YEAR career as front man of Led Zeppelin is condensed into less than 11 SECONDS on “Tall Cool One.” Yeah, thanks for reminding me but that Viking longship has sailed. Led Zeppelin is gone. I’m in England now. I’m trying to listen to Robert Plant.

Those moments are a reminder of the same people who once rocked like a Led Zeppelin but burst like a water balloon when the man came to get wet. Those moments are for people who once felt what Plant was saying and listened, spellbound, to the pastor. And goddamnit, Robert Plant is worth listening to on this album. Because just like the redeemer, he’s trying to save every misbegotten track on Now and Zen. But by this point, once the water becomes wine more than twice, it’s no longer incredulous. It’s innocuous.

 

Plant always brings it. Even if it means wrangling one good song from Shaken ‘N’ Stirred, that’s what I expect. Solo career Robert Plant’s only unknown rests in what his bandmates bring to help.

So, what do his bandmates bring to help? A new lineup—a good thing. By Shaken ‘N’ Stirred, Robbie Blunt sounded tapped out. Enter replacement Doug Boyle, wired like a caffeine pill for the guitars on “Dance on My Own” and “Helen of Troy.” On keys, Phil Johnstone continues the big eighties sound from Plant’s debut and sophomore albums. Behind the kit, no more Phil Collins. Chris Blackwell takes over on the sticks and stays on pace and in time.

And by “Ship of Fools” everyone is focused and energized. With the help of Tim Palmer and Johnstone in the producer chair, Plant brings the focus while his band brings the energy. Plant no longer need be overwhelmed by any energy. Instead, he just needs to harness it. Thanks to this newfound energy we have a proper successor to The Principle of Moments. None of that Shaken ‘N’ Stirred nonsense—this is a real, proper, successor. Not because the music is instantly catchy or the hooks sink in deep. Nah, in fact, this album is an itinerant preacher. It’ll need a couple listens before it all makes sense. But it does reclaim Plant’s musical direction and, more importantly, points it forward.

That’s all it needed to do.

Producer: Robert Plant, Tim Palmer & Phil Johnstone

Tracklist:

  1. “Heaven Knows”
  2. “Dance on My Own”
  3. “Tall Cool One”
  4. “The Way I Feel”
  5. “Helen of Troy”
  6. “Billy’s Revenge”
  7. “Ship of Fools”
  8. “Why”
  9. “White, Clean and Neat”
  10. “Walking Towards Paradise”