It’s a long time since we heard Robert Plant wailing like a banshee, as he did with spine-tingling effect on those early Zep albums, but his solo career has a surprising number of worthwhile contributions to his ever-growing catalogue, along with a few diversions down musical cul-de-sacs.
It was his recent duet with country singer Alison Krauss (and its sterling production by T-Bone Burnett) that created renewed interest in Plant, however, and it seems somewhat inevitable that the follow-up would be somehow conjoined with that project.
So here it is, then, Band Of Joy, an album of mostly cover versions performed in a rootsy fashion. ‘Angel Of Dance’, a Los Lobos song, has a raw, almost early rock’n’roll guitar sound, but filigree patterns of mandolin add a layer of sophistication. Plant’s vocals are sounding a little ragged, and the song doesn’t exactly demand much of them. ‘House Of Cards’ (Richard Thompson) has the same low, raw guitar but the song itself has a folksy quality, with gospel/Americana chorus (and harmony singing) and mandolin again, but strummed this time. It’s a little boring, and reminds me of The Band, one of my least favourite acts. ‘Central Two-0-Nine’, replete with banjo, is again folksy with a country twang, but it’s a type of blues: “Let me hear that whistle blow/take me back my baby’s door”. ‘Silver Rider’ (a Low song) is a moody ballad, with a duet with Patti Griffin taking Krauss’s place. Well, at least it does have a genuine mood, even if it is a desultory one. ‘You Can’t Buy My Love’ again has a rough-edged guitar sound/bottom end that could almost be Tiniwaren; it’s an old-fashioned rocker that’s not a million musical miles from a certain Beatles song, but has female singer on chorus. ‘Falling In Love Again’ is a late ‘50s/early ‘60s greasy pop song with doo-wop vocals and a country gospel sound. Why? ‘The Only Sound That Matters’ is another country-tinged ballad with pedal steel guitar, and it’s another that just tips into cliché. ‘Monkey’ (another Low song with Griffin helping out) is a bit more interesting; it has a darkness about it and a sense of mystery, although the ‘tonight you will be mine/tonight the monkey dies’ lyric is either cliché or intentionally humorous, depending on your disposition. ‘Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday’ is an old folk song with a country flavour. ‘Harm’s Swift Way’ (Townes Van Zant) is a story-type folk song. ‘Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down’ is a gospel blues. ‘Even This Shall Pass Away’ is an ancient-sounding one chord blues.
On first listen, I’m a little disappointed. Plant doesn’t stretch himself vocally, and there’s simply not the charm of his Krauss duet project. What’s quite obviously missing is T-Bone Burnett’s careful curatorial approach and production nous.
Sound: Maybe the CD will sound awesome. The record companies have started making streaming files rather than CDs available to reviewers, and this one didn’t sound very good at all. I asked Universal’s local representative, Jane Yee, how compressed this file was, and she couldn’t provide an answer: “Unfortunately the stream was sent via the UK (such is the security around the album) and I am not sure about the ins and outs of the compression rates. When we send streams from here they are uploaded as .wav or .aiff files in order to preserve as much of the integrity of the music as possible, but I understand they do get compressed somewhat from there (but not to the same extent as, say, an MP3 file would be). I would assume the UK system is the same, but as I didn’t personally encode that particular release I can’t be certain.” This makes it almost impossible to come up with a definite assessment of Band Of Joy: who knows, maybe the album itself will sound amazing, and the sheer quality will bring out all the nuances of Plant’s performance, and that of his support crew. I won’t give a rating to this release, as I can’t be sure that hearing it in its full quality version won’t alter the rating. As a result of this experience, I have made the decision not to review further streamed or downloaded albums unless the record company can assure me that they are CD-quality. GARY STEEL