Robert Plant: Band of Joy

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Robert Plant

In the last two years, Robert Plant has managed to disappoint his fans both new and old, after refusing a larger Led Zeppelin reunion tour, as well as a second go-round with Alison Krause. But he did generate some excitement among his hard-core admirers when they heard his latest effort would be titled “Band of Joy,” a homage to his teenage band of the same name. The assumption: that it would be a return to the adventurous, preening blues of his youth.

Not exactly, as it turns out. The title, as he’s explained it, is merely a nod to how much he enjoys creating music these days.  The disc is streaming on NPR for another week, and after a few listens, I can’t say that I share the full measure of his enjoyment.

As is his wont these days, the disc blends his love of American roots music, blues and world music, particularly Gaelic and Middle Eastern. Stylistically, it walks a line directly between his recent work with the Strange Sensation and Krause. The former, particularly the “Mighty Rearranger” disc, was the finest thing he’s done since leaving Zeppelin, full of dynamic contrasts between trippy world music and crashing guitars. The latter speaks for itself, Grammys and all. What it lacked in bombast it made up for with emotional resonance, and welcome covers of several forgotten tunes.

The current album can boast neither rock bombast nor quiet emotion. The production is similar to “Raising Sand,” even though he’s traded T. Bone Burnett for Buddy Miller: sparse, laden with reverb and acoustic strings, a bit directionless at times. The songs: mostly down-tempo, obscure covers, from Richard Thompson to Los Lobos to Townes Van Zandt, don’t do him any favors, either.

But most importantly, perhaps thanks to the absence of Krause, his latter-day muse, Plant almost never asks you to believe what he’s singing in these 12 songs. His readings are flat, lilting, restrained. Even a classic country standard like “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” leaves you wanting so much more. It’s 180 degrees from Uncle Tupelo’s searing take on it.

The best track is also the only original: “Central Two-Oh-Nine,” a slide-guitar fueled stomp that sounds like an outtake from “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” One could ask the same question of Plant.

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