You get what you need

It seems surprising that Robert Plant is never considered part of rock’s sexagenarian awkward squad, that select cabal of artists who’ve turned bewildering audiences and critics into an art form, who see pleasing the crowd as a dereliction of duty.

Judging by his solo career, that’s where he belongs—in the old contrarians’ clubhouse, basking in the sunny glow of Lou Reed’s winning personality, wiping a tear of mirth from his eye as Neil Young recalls how his fans hated 2009’s Fork in the Road so much they actually pleaded with his record label not to release it, nodding while Van Morrison revisits the time he decried music magazines for their “obsession with the past” during an interview to promote an album of 1950s and 1960s country-and-western covers.

Plant could certainly hold his own with them, at least on musical terms. No sooner had he minted a new-wave album-oriented rock (AOR) style distinct from Led Zeppelin and scored a hit single with the unfortunately titled Big Log than things started to go off-road.

First an album of high-camp 1950s rock ‘n roll covers as the Honeydrippers, then the flatly indescribable Shaken ‘n Stirred: whatever his fans imagined he’d end up doing in the 1980s, it probably wasn’t singing Doo Doo a Do Do over honks of atonal synth and flailing bass.

On the occasions he has acquiesced to the clamour for something Zeppelin-shaped, he’s thrown some kind of curve ball: singing over samples of the band on 1989’s Now and Zen, enlisting Steve Albini as producer for the Page and Plant album, Walking into Clarksdale, then abandoning the reunion, first to play the Queen Mary Ballroom in Dudley Zoo with the Priory of Brion, then to form Strange Sensation, the latter making Plant one of the few musicians in the world who would rather be in a band with a bloke out of Cast than Jimmy Page.

Coolly walking away
When Led Zeppelin finally did reform, Plant appeared to go out of his way to talk the event’s significance down, then coolly walked away to promote his country album with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand.

Not even Raising Sand‘s mammoth critical acclaim, multiplatinum sales and five Grammy awards could quell the clamour for a Led Zep reunion, much of it emanating from his former bandmates.

Those who like to read deep meanings into things might feel there’s something telling in his decision to resurrect the name Band of Joy for his latest solo album—originally the name of Plant and John Bonham’s 1960s psych-blues band, it harks back to a world in which Led Zeppelin never existed.

The preponderance of Nashville session players in Band of Joy’s ranks might lead you to expect a continuation of Raising Sand‘s country explorations: singer Patty Griffin—her desolate voice a fascinating counterpoint to the down-home warmth of Alison Krauss—and guitarist Darrell Scott have both written mainstream country hits for the Dixie Chicks.

It’s an idea immediately upturned by the opening cover of Los Lobos’s Angel Dance. The mandolin riff in the chorus suggests it could have been performed as straight country, but instead the pretty melody is swamped by tremolo-heavy guitars—it sounds humid and mysterious. It’s evidence of Band of Joy’s often thrillingly tangential approach to their material, which is brilliantly chosen.

You wouldn’t think it based on the way he dressed in the 1970s, but Plant is a man of exquisite taste, hence two tracks from slowcore band Low’s 2005 album, The Great Destroyer—the creepy intensity ratcheted up by guitarist Buddy Miller’s opaque smears of feedback and Plant and Griffin’s eerily controlled vocals—rub shoulders with a Richard Thompson song, House of Cards, a fabulous, obscure bit of mid-1960s New Orleans R&B called Can’t Buy My Love and the late Townes Van Zandt’s heart-breaking final song, Harm’s Swift Way.

Straightforward performance
Rather than play up the song’s weary pathos, the performance is straightforward, propulsive country-rock—you notice its sweet tune before the lyric’s star intimations of mortality.

At the other extreme, there’s Even This Shall Pass Away: a 19th-century poem set to a clattering syncopated beat and buzzing synthesised bass, Plant’s voice entwining with fragments of densely effected guitar.

You could, if you squint hard, see the ghost of Led Zeppelin lurking around its sound, yet it feels like a song with its eyes fixed firmly on the future, rather than resting on past glories.

Like the rest of Band of Joy, it feels more edifying than a Led Zep reunion, not just for the guy singing on it, but also for the listener.

It’s marked by the fresh excitement of mapping out new territory rather than the more craven pleasure of wallowing in nostalgia: an object lesson in the value of not giving people what they want.—Guardian News & Media 2010

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