In 2007 a sixties rock icon teamed up with a young fiddle-playing bluegrass star to form one of the most unlikely combinations in modern music – a music misfit if ever it appeared. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss would go on to release an album Raising Sand completely under the radar. It would prove a sensation.
Now 14 years later, they are at it again. The only difference is their second album Raise the Roof has been launched with one of the biggest promotional campaigns in recent times.
Prior to its release on November 19, the pair put out three singles – “Can’t Let Go,” “High and Lonesome,” “It Don’t Bother Me” – and each time the music media was clamouring to hang on every word of the cleverly-orchestrated publicity material. It paid off handsomely – their cover of the Lucinda Williams standard “Can’t Let Go” spent several weeks at the top of the Americana Radio charts.
Raise the Roof was produced by T-Bone Burnett. No surprise really, considering it was Burnett who brought the pair together when producing Raising Sand which would go multi-platinum and win all five awards for which it was nominated at the 2009 Grammys, including Album of the Year. Burnett hand-picked all the songs on the original album and one, a cover of Roly Salley’s “Killing the Blues,” would be named in Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Songs of 2007.
Again, no surprise really, for Burnett could claim sole responsibility for the rapid recognition of the newly launched Americana Music genre when, in the year 2000, he produced the majestic soundtrack of the cult movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou. Burnett would bring together a good mix of the some of the biggest names in Americana – Krauss among them - to sell roots music to a worldwide audience. It would have spectacular results, becoming only the second film soundtrack ever to win Album of the Year at the Grammys.
Is Burnett in line for more accolades from Raise the Roof? No doubt, given the immediate impact “Can’t Let Go” had on radio airplay. The treatment of this song – from the classic Lucinda Williams album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – is straight from the stylebook the pair, and Burnett, established on Raising Sand. The beautiful haunting harmonies are just the same and the song, written by Randy Weeks, fits the pair like a glove.
The only original of the album’s 12 tracks is “High and Lonesome,” written by Plant and Burnett. This is clearly an outlet for the co-writer. Close your eyes and Plant’s vocals take you way back to his days leading with Led Zeppelin. Krauss’s contribution appears deliberately sparse and the shared chorus further understates her contribution. The song is percussion driven but the slow fade out is somewhat soothing.
Krauss takes the lead with a simply magical interpretation of “It Don’t Bother Me,” a song written by Bert Jansch, a Scottish acoustic musician who died 10 years ago. He recorded at least 25 albums and was regarded as a major influence on the work of Plant’s Led Zeppelin collaborator Jimmy Page.
“I’ve been a big follower of Bert Jansch’s work since I was a teenager, and of that whole Irish, Scottish, English folk style that has a different lilt and different lyrical perspective. I was very keen to bring some of that into the picture,” Plant said in a statement.
The pair actually hit the ground running on the opening track with a majestic duet of Calexico’s ”Quattro (World Drifts in).” The harmonies are instantly intimate, if at times even somewhat intricate.
“Trouble with My Lover,” written by Allen Toussaint, was given the full soul treatment when it was originally released by Betty Harris way back when. Krauss strips it of that with her super-smooth vocals aided by supportive percussion. The pair also covered a Toussaint song (“Fortune Teller”) on Raising Sand, so again they are sticking somewhat to the knitting.
When Raise The Roof was finally released – after all the teasing – there is a sting in the tail, with the addition of two tracks in the “Deluxe Edition.” These are the Hank Williams tear-jerker “My Heart Would Know” and the Lucinda Williams bluesy “You Can’t Rule Me.”
There is nothing like a steel guitar to bring out the country side of Krauss and she responds in kind with a soft and soothing interpretation of a true Hank weepie “My Heart Would Know” – I could tell my heart, I’m glad we parted/My lips could tell a lie/But my heart would know. Plant plays his part too with some of the smoothest chorus harmonies on the release.
“You Can’t Rule Me” is a fitting closer as it returns the pair to the gritty, rhythmic, bluesy tones which vibrate throughout much of the album – largely due to Burnett’s guiding hand which casts an ever-present shadow across the mixing deck!
There is no doubt that the decision to wait 14 years to produce a follow-up to the dynamic Raising Sand was a wise one. The latest production was somewhat convoluted due to COVID lockdown complications. But the eager anticipation from the orchestrated build-up has been rewarded with a product equally as classy as the first.
Plant and Krauss will team up next June for their first tour in 12 years. The 18-gig trek across the U.S. and Europe will start in Canandaigua, New York, on June 1 and finish in Berlin on July 20.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation