The Duo That Swept the 2007 Grammys Reunite—and Produce a Much Better Album

When Robert Plant and Alison Krauss released Raising Sand in 2007, I wasn't very enthusiastic. It seemed too snug a fit into producer T-Bone Burnett's campaign to bring roots music to the mainstream, with soundtracks to films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain. The music industry was determined to find any excuse to drape garlands on boomer dinosaurs after Raising Sand won a gramophone. What the three of them had made was musically perfect. I wanted to feel a sharper peck.

In 2021, Plant, Krauss, and Burnett are going to present Raise the Roof, the sequel to that record. I am no longer afraid of music that is domestic or communally consoling, which has always been an element of roots traditions. This week, boomer musical hegemony was nominated for a gramophone, with artists in their teens and 20s. The influence of streaming and TikTok might be affecting music history. Songs on cover-song albums like Plant and Krauss offer a chance to retrace and explore unfamiliar musical regions.

I think I was wrong about Raising Sand, it still seems to lean towards the pretty and sleepy, but I don't think I was entirely wrong. It doesn't seem so cynical that the artists have waited more than a dozen years to follow up on its success, given that closer listening reveals more worth hearing. Krauss continued with her path in Americana, her total is second only to Beyblades. Plant, who was 73 at the time, has proven to be one of the broader-minded artists of his vintage, reaching out to collaborators around the globe, a far cry from the reactionary coots like Van Morrison and Eric Clapton among his 1960s peers.

Plant and Krauss kept in touch even after they went their own ways, sending back and forth ideas for songs they might sing. I think you can hear the cumulative effects of that process on Raise the Roof compared to the previous one, where the producer made all the song choices. There is more variety in mood and pace here, and the singers sound more firmly in command, showing off all the vocal and emotional colors at their disposal.

Thematically, there is a more consistent through-line than on Raising Sand, and it is not obtrusive until you stop to notice it. The set begins with a song called "Quattro (World Drifts In)," originally by the Arizona band Calexico, which alludes vaguely to "a time, occupied and invaded," and having "no choice but to run to the mountains." The album's post-pandemic release has echoes of our recent experiences of separation and loneliness. The subject matter evokes that long hiatus because Plant and Krauss were both so many years apart.

Something about the vibe of Plant and Krauss is underscored by that theme. Their voices don't merge into a symbiotic unit, unlike a sibling group such as the Everly Brothers. With his weathered rock'n'roll pipes and her more controlled, pearlescent timbres, they gain power from the contrast and distance, an energy that seems generated in the space between. They are separated by gender, generation, training and tradition. Krauss hails from Illinois, where she became a bluegrass star at an early age, and Plant hails from the Black Country of the British West Midlands. The ear hears them as two individuals, independent musical minds, making choices in reaction to one another, no matter how elegantly they harmonize.

Their collaboration is so rewarding because of the fine detail of the call and response, approach and retreat braided through each song. Raise the Roof is a good background for a dinner party, but if you want to get the maximum impact, you should put it in a dark room, leaning back and sinking deep.

The voices and instrumental arrangements are to blame for its abundance. The core of the murderer's row who played on Raising Sand, including guitar genius Marc Ribot, drummer-percussionist Jay Bellerose, and bassist Dennis Crouch, have been reassembled by Burnett. The sound is thick and one player is sketching in the foliage while another is looking at the birds. It can be great to listen to a track and see how it changes over time, as on a great jazz record.

Krauss and Plant are still the main attractions. I like to sort the tracks into twos because of the dualities that define the record. The two 1960s British folk-revival songs are "It Don't Bother Me" by the beloved crooner-guitarist Bert Jansch and "Go Your Way" by the nearly forgotten Anne Briggs. Krauss takes the melody of Jansch's song and makes it her own: "I sit mending your clothes/ That you will never ever wear/ Cooking daily for you I do prepare/ But woe-oh-oh is me..." Perhaps it is the play with assumed identity that draws out the best singers.

A more upbeat dyad, played straighter in gender terms, is derived from two obscure soul tracks written by Allan Toussaint and originally sung by Betty. Another pair offers a different style of music: Plant sings a song called "You Led Me to the Wrong", which is closer to Krauss's specialties. She takes lead on the legendary "Last Kind Word Blues" from the early 1930s by a blues singer who was a founding member of the blues genre.

The album has one original song, a composition by Plant and Burnett called "High and Lonesome", which is a return to sorts for Plant. This is the place for anyone who wants a Led Zep-style blues pastiche. The high notes of old are absent, but it is still amazing how vividly Plant can summon up those youthful tones when he chooses. Krauss sings a beautiful rendition of the 1982 Merle Haggard country hit, " Going Where the Lonely Go." I might have ended the album with those soothing tones. There is nothing wrong with the closing workout, but it comes across as a bit repetitive and I would prefer to hear the one from Pops.

It is too bad that Raise the Roof is unlikely to be as popular as Raising Sand was. Plant and Krauss have made it clear that it is not about those rewards for them. It's not a statement, a pedantic lesson about which music is required for a balanced diet, or some kind of exquisitely carved stick with which to beat younger generations about what "real music" is. A group of stunningly gifted people get together once in a while to make something beautiful. It feels like it's smarter not to have agendas now that it's broken down its cultural politics further. Enjoy it in moderation.


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