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Unlikely pair find harmony with “Raising Sand”

James costa | Monday, November 26, 2007

There are certain musical pairings that immediately make sense. Take Simon and Garfunkel or Celine Dion and Andrea Boccelli.

But Robert Plant and Alison Krauss?

It’s like setting Bambi and King Kong up for the senior prom and expecting some sparks to fly by the last slow song. Yet somehow, it works. It works beautifully.

Plant is most famous for his role as lead singer of the iconic rock band Led Zeppelin. At the band’s heyday, Plant contributed vocals that often bordered on screams and created a blasting sound often imitated, but rarely equaled in the world of rock and roll.

Krauss, on the other end of the musical spectrum, is considered the quintessential female bluegrass vocalist. She’s prone to whisper her way through hypnotic songs of love and loss in a way more eerie and transcendent than most any other performer today.

The two seasoned artists, in a display of mutual admiration, find in “Raising Sand” a means of creating a unique musical collaboration that is as haunting as it is brilliant. Indeed, this could not have happened except for now, as both artists ease toward the twilights of their respective careers. Each song carries a seasoned and aged perspective that feels believable because of its honesty.

All of the songs on the record are remakes of lesser-known tracks from the catalogs of blues, county, folk, gospel and R&B artists like Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Milt Campbell, the Everly Brothers, Sam Phillips, and A.D. and Rosa Lee Watson. The record’s producer, T. Bone Burnett, deserves recognition as the third piece of the puzzle, choosing most of the songs and compiling the backing band that adds a mystic quality to each track.

Using guitarists Marc Ribot and Norman Blake, bassist Sam Phillips and A.D. and Rosa Lee Watson, Burnett fashions a mellow and concise sound that augments Plant and Krauss without overpowering them.

Some of the songs on the record are left alone, sounding like the obscure original versions. Yet Burnett chooses more often to change the arrangements in powerful ways. In “Rich Woman,” the record’s opening track, Plant and Krauss sing together in a soft and optimistic tone, while just beneath their words a river of music crafts an ominous undertone.

Perhaps most interesting and appealing about this record is the courage both Plant and Krauss had in delving into new and untried disciplines. Plant convincingly plays the honkeytonker and gospel singer, while Krauss supports him as a bona fide blues singer. While removing themselves from their comfort zones to create a new sound together, they both use their classic strengths to make the album truly exceptional.

Krauss in particular uses her famously ethereal voice to lend a lingering and poignant effect to nearly each song on the record.

The album has an almost back-porch-like appeal that carries it admirably through its heaviest and lightest moments. The sound is so earnest and natural that you can imagine stumbling into an old farmhouse in some sleepy Southern town and finding Plant and Krauss, just sitting back on two old rocking chairs and harmonizing.

Old songs can be made new again by old souls bent on forging new ground together. Thank goodness Plant and Krauss had courage enough to raise the sand one more time.