Originally published on BU Common Ground on December 28, 2010
With such a vibrant career and with innumerable disciples in contemporary music, Robert Plant doesn’t need to annually churn out records to remain relevant. Yet, it seems the former Led-Zeppelin frontman’s thirst for new challenges is insatiable. Plant opened this fall with Band of Joy, his ninth solo album and his second featuring nearly all covers. Increasingly drawn back to the music of the early 1960s, especially that of country-capital Nashville, TN, Plant sought to “bring his personality” to classics, enlisting the help of other veteran musicians to bring “the dynamic music scene of the 1960s to now.
The strongest tracks off Band of Joy can be credited to Buddy Miller, a seasoned songwriter and producer from Nashville who designed the rhythm section that drives the album. The tightest track, “Angel Dance” (a Los Lobos cover), exemplifies this rambling momentum and achieves the “confident and proud” tone Plant aimed for. The mandolin accompaniment also adds to the verve of the track, simultaneously recalling both the Great Smokey and the Misty Mountains rooted deep in Plant’s musical past.
Continuing Plant’s rustic treatment of “Angel Dance”, the best of the album are tracks that mirror the same grit of American music that John and Alan Lomax captured in their time capsule of rural America. The darkest, “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, is particularly effective in relating its history as a black spiritual; Plant’s dragging vocals backed by the band’s haunting moans pull listeners along the undulating sway of slave marches that flattened American cotton fields for centuries. Plant’s rendition of the folk-classic “Cindy” (titled here as “Cindy, I’ll Marry you Sometime”), is exemplary of variable American folk tradition; the frequently-covered piece features both Plant’s renovations and tributes the Appalachian tradition from whence it came. “Central Two-O-Nine”, the album’s only original, combines the strengths of the previous pieces to create an organic, yet unique, sound that incorporates all of Plant’s influences to provide natural steamrolling emotion.
With such success out of tradition, it is logical that Band of Joy fails when Plant tries to deviate from his roots. The tracks “Silver Rider”, “The Only Sound that Matters”, and “Monkey” are essentially identical – far too ethereal attempts at Pink-Floyd-esque arrangements that ultimately fall flat from monotony. Additionally, the recurring pairing of Plant with Patty Griffin’s vocals simply doesn’t work, as the overly-breathy combination distort when they intersect, preventing any communication of emotion.
Collectively, Band of Joy is a dignified album. Plant’s bow to the American music tradition compels the listener to in turn bend to Plant, grateful for his revival of roots often buried in the electric mainstream. At sixty-two, Plant’s voice is slightly scorched around the edges, but it remains cored with the same wholesome power that has always commanded attention. And one should pay attention. With his expansive library, Robert Plant doesn’t need to create anything new — and in Band of Joy, he really doesn’t. It seems that Plant made this album for himself to further connect with the ghosts of his antecedents. But even as a personal and individualized record, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen.
Overall Grade: 6.5