ROBERT PLANT AND ALISON KRAUSS
Raise The Roof (Warner)
THERE ARE TWO SEEMINGLY CONTRADICTORY aspects to this deliciously satisfying second album from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – after a 14-year break since their first – and neither of them is the idea that he, doyen of English hard rock built from American blues, Tolkien folk and a youth of rampant cock-o-the-walk masculinity, turned exploratory middle age excavator of roots, would find common ground with her, leading light of country Americana, vocalist of purity and precision, and historian of bluegrass.
Sales in excess of a million, a swag of Grammys and an album that still bears repeating in half a dozen different moods more than a dozen years later put that question to bed a long time back. Indeed, the only question left was why have we had to wait this long for a follow-up when a spry, sexy spin around the floor track like Can’t Let Go was waiting for us?
The twin quirks of Raise The Roof come, concretely at first, in the recognition that in tempo, tone and mood, this is an album decidedly not looking to raise the roof. It isn’t sombre all the time, it doesn’t lack for rhythm – in truth, some of its best moments hinge on the subtle but firm grooves created by musicians like Jay Bellerose, Dennis Crouch and producer T Bone Burnett – it even has a few sly moments of humour. But this is neither a foot stomping gathering for those high on the hops, nor a holy roller celebration bringing us closer to some or other god.
Though, I will concede, you may well see god in the workings of this record.
With only one of them original/new - High And Lonesome, written by Plant and Burnett - these blues, country, folk (yes, that’s a Bert Jansch song midway through) songs, and the songs that exist in the borderless land Krauss and Plant make for themselves between or encompassing blues, country, folk, sit instead in a twilight setting.
From the measured but still warm opening Quattro (World Drifts In), originally performed by the desert border land band Calexico, to the sexy hip sway in the strolling blues of Lucinda Williams’ You Can’t Rule Me, that closes the 14-track set, this is an album arriving before all the heat has left the day but not yet time for heading back inside.
Going Where The Lonely Go, a lesser known Merle Haggard cut, has the ease of two bodies curled up against each other, even as they sing of bodies forced apart, and it is as languorous as the pedal steel line. Jansch’s cooler It Don’t Bother Me, on the other hand, affects distance and indifference, but has a rising tempo and encroaching percussion that suggests more emotions roiled.
Even the traditional tale of betrayal, led by violin and hand drums for ominous intimacy, of Ola Bella Reed’s You Led Me To The Wrong, pitches somewhere between full denunciation and self-recrimination, between a day’s harshness and a night’s acceptance. And at all times it feels more rather than less, tailored to its story and its rhythm.
Which brings me to the other contradiction: that Raise The Roof feels all the more pressing, more wanted, because at no time does it feel necessary. That is, there’s nothing about this record that feels imposed or contrived and it is as unhurried in intention as it is in tempo.
Take the combination of voices, and the arrangements of voices that don’t always sing together, reinforcing the idea that this isn’t a regulation duets album, not a call-and-response album, nor a harmonising album, but rather a collection of songs that weave in and out of each other in ways that suit the track, not a predetermined path. Much as their voices weave in and out of each other’s orbits, or their influences – close but quite divergent – play in and against each other.
The tense Somebody Was Watching Over Me sees Plant and male backing vocals pulling at the threads of Brenda Burns’ tougher blues, Krauss a faint echo in the ether leaving the implications hanging. Allen Toussaint’s sultry Trouble With My Lover finds Krauss taking the lead over low impact drums and a mid-distance guitar, with Plant arriving midway through, briefly murmuring in response, before the bass reclaims the spotlight.
The Price Of Love sits somewhere between those, plangent guitar setting the scene for Krauss and Plant to interact from a safe but still touchable distance: not quite back and forth but crossing paths. Which makes sense when you realise it was written by the close/distant/loving/loathing Phil and Don Everly.
But then, Last Kind Word Blues has Krauss and Plant sharing the centre, the slow turning folk blues, with its brush of Italian colour, breathing through both voices, leisurely but with space for the import of Geeshie Wiley’s lyrics to land, when they need to.
The cross-currents of genres, influences and histories Krauss and Plant (and Burnett) bring to their collaborations becomes a conversation between them. The joy of the records they’ve made is that the conversation continues with us.