Summer. Dusk. An ancient Cadillac convertible, top down, cruises on Long Island back roads.
On the radio, the Rolling Stones.
“The world's greatest rock band?” I ask.
The music mogul at the wheel doesn't have to ponder.
“Led Zep,” he says.
And so it may be. Which would put Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin's singer, a cut above Mick Jagger. And would make it even more unlikely that he would ever collaborate with a bluegrass singer and violinist from Nashville on anything --- especially something as crazy as a collection of cover songs from the moldy basement of country and rock.
But here is “Raising Sand”, the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss CD, and you have only to hear it once to know that you will listen to it often. And, again, I have to invoke the most unlikely of reasons --- it confounds your every expectation.
You expected Plant's want-you, need-you, got-to-have-you cry that starts somewhere in the mid-range and moves fast into the crack-glass zone? You'll find his signature scream here, but you'll have to listen closely.
And Alison Krauss? Bluegrass is rigid, unforgiving music; it is, say I, more about expertise than imagination. Over the years, she's bent the bluegrass envelope, but she's never shredded it. You'll find her purity on display here; again, you'll have to listen closely.
In these songs, Plant whispers and Krauss shrieks. Drums pound, but vocals are muted. The past is honored --- it turns out that Plant and Krauss share a love of bluegrass and '50s country-rock --- but it's filtered through processors that transform no-frills country into sophisticated urban ghost music. “Raising Sand” is, in short, the kind of music that sounds great in the car or when you're puttering, but sounds even greater when you sit down, plug in the headphones, and go to school on it.
The key player here is T-Bone Burnett, who, on the strength of this CD alone, ought to abandon all dreams of performance and surrender to his genius as a producer. With his input, Plant and Krauss realized they didn't have to record a dozen duets. And so “Raising Sand” is a collaborative “project” --- some of him, some of her, and a generous helping of them.
What's true of every song: originality. We're used to fervent being fervent; here the power of love or heartbreak or whatever is in the restraint. It's more than Plant, Krauss and Burnett throwing one head fake after another your way. It's about digging in and exploring, caring more about sound than about commerce. Only unknowns and megastars get the chance to make this kind of CD --- and these days most megastars prefer the safety of a victory lap.
At the corner of quality and daring, we find a welcome novelty. Cover songs as cutting edge music? A rocker who looks 200 finding the kind of tenderness he used to sneer at? A bluegrass sweetheart who seemed to want to grow up to be Emmylou Harris discovering a wild side? All of the above.
Miracles occur. Magic is afoot. And “Raising Sand” is the CD of the year.