Unexpected Beauty: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand

By Daniel Garrett
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand
Produced by T Bone Burnett
Rounder Records, 2007

“She got the money and I got the honey” and “She give me a Cadillac, a diamond ring,” lyrics from “Rich Woman,” written by Dorothy LaBostrie and McKinley Millet, the first song on Raising Sand, at once reverses our expectations of male-female relationships and is in line with our current concern for material wealth; and it is hard to beat as a blend of transgression and conformity. The song’s rhythm has mystique, a sensuous pull, and the low-voiced harmony matches. Robert Plant, a legendary rock musician, and Alison Krauss, an established folk performer, would seem an odd match but on Raising Sand they are unbeatable; and with their collaborators—producer T Bone Burnett, drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Dennis Crouch, and others—they have made very satisfying music.

“Somebody said they saw me swinging the world by the tail,” are the words, and love and freedom found, and likely to be given up, is the theme of Rowland Salley’s “Killing the Blues,” a song of delicate melody and harmony. Krauss has proved she could deliver such work in the past; and here Plant does the same, with no masculine posturing (he lets the timbre of his voice serve the song).

Lost love and spiritual music as balm is the subject of “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” by Sam Phillips, and in it Alison Krauss’s voice is pristine and tender, and the song’s rhythmic pacing suggests something bardic, something old and imperishable. (T Bone Burnett plays guitar, Alison Krauss plays fiddle on the song, and Marc Ribot banjo.) Some of the lyrics are: “Darkness held me like a friend when love wore off. Looking for the lamb that’s hidden in the cross. The finder’s lost.”

Gene Clark’s “Polly Come Home,” a song given a thick weighted beat, could be about a bird or a woman that has left a man, inspiring his call for her return; and Plant sings the ballad, creating a sense of personal, even mystical, space, an impression of contemplation and desolation and the resource of spiritual imagination.

The Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone,” a song that lifts the energy of the collection, is about a man’s warning his disappointing lover about his departure, and is the most rock-oriented song in the collection (I could hear an echo of Elvis Presley in it). The quality of Plant’s voice (the lack of recognizable age, the lack of raggedness) is again impressive; and his repeated “well” displays both control and expression.

It is interesting to hear Alison Krauss sing the words of Gene Clark’s “Through the Morning, Through the Night”: “Believe me when I tell you I could never kill a man, but to know that another man’s holding you tight hurts me little darling,” her lilting voice adding a very contemporary ambiguity.

Robert Plant revisits Led Zeppelin’s “Please Read the Letter,” and the song is very poignant, a song in which love and regret, passion and fantasy, are mingled. “Once I stood beside a well of many words. My house was full of rings and charms and pretty birds. Please understand me, my walls came falling down.” The music, here, has a country-rock sound, and the love described continues beyond disappointment and distance. (Marc Ribot plays acoustic and electric guitar, and Krauss fiddle.) Plant embellishes the end of the song, which will not disappoint Led Zeppelin admirers.

There is a wispy atmosphere in “Trampled Rose,” which yet has interesting rhythms, featuring piano and keyboards by Patrick Warren, as well as guitar and drum (I found myself thinking not only of American country life, but also of Mexican country life). “Lying at my feet, a trampled rose” is an image the song offers of betrayed love, while the line “You never pay just once to get the job done” conveys the effort and sacrifice required in living (the song’s writers are Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan).

In Naomi Neville’s “Fortune Teller,” which has a hovering, pulsating, beat, a mystic predicts her own love, unbeknownst to a client. Robert Plant’s voice is full of declaration, vivid; and there is something of a circle dance rhythm near the end of the song, before the last stanza.

On Raising Sand, the sentence “Yes we’ll find a way” is a rare wholly positive statement, and it occurs in the lovely, soft “Stick with Me Baby,” a song written by Mel Tillis, a song of faithful love despite discouragement and rumor. It is far from usual that a man easily demonstrates the power to be found in being subtle but that is what Robert Plant does with his singing on most of Raising Sand.

Is the kiss-off in Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’” wise, or merely eloquent? After the song’s opening with thrashing guitar, Plant as narrator remains calm, possibly too calm, the calm of collapse, and the man says, “I stood there like a block of stone” and tells his lover to leave nothing when she goes, and states, “Sorrow and solitude, these are the precious things, and the only words that are worth rememberin’.” Krauss plays fiddle, and Ribot banjo in this song, which—with “Rich Woman,” “Gone Gone Gone,” “Please Read the Letter,” and “Stick with Me Baby”—is among my favorites in the collection.

Love has been given over for fun and foolishness; and now “my pride keeps telling me, Let your loss be your lesson,” states writer Milt Campbell, in a song given a surprisingly pleasant, uptempo beat, a song that Krauss sings—keeping the lines about once having had a good woman (a universal gesture)—and sings with an intensity both Loretta Lynn and Aretha Franklin would recognize. It is a marvelous near-end song for the album.

“Your Long Journey,” by A.D. Watson and Rosa Lee Watson, an anticipation of a lover’s death, an anticipation of loneliness and memory, is sung in harmony by Krauss and Plant: beautifully, as with everything else here.

Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.