Monday, February 09, 2009

Album of the Year: Plant and Krauss

I didn't actually watch the Grammy Awards last night, more like listened from the next room. Now and then somebody I'd want to see would be on, and I'd get up and go in and watch them. I especially wanted to see Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, though to tell you the truth I thought the staging of their set at that glitzy venue was distracting and probably not anything like seeing them live. At the end of the night they received the big award for Album of the Year, and I have to say yay! For me, "Raising Sand" was the album of the year. They also won Record of the Year, Pop Collaboration with Vocals, Country Collaboration with Vocals, and Contemporary Folk/Americana Album.

There are two songs on this CD from an old 1969 album by a band you probably don't remember, Dillard and Clark. Dillard and Clark was made up of Doug Dillard of the Dillards, who were a top bluegrass group of the day, and Gene Clark, tambourine player and harmony singer for the Byrds in the "Tambourine Man" and "Turn Turn Turn" days, plus a bunch of guys, some of whom had been in the Byrds and some who would be in the Eagles. I didn't know much about this band, even though I grew up in the Southwest and heard plenty of the LA country-rock bands of the day.

I went to Barnes and Noble to see if I could find the "Through the Morning, Through the Night" album that these two songs came off of. They play CDs in the music section of the store, and set the cases out so people can see what they're listening to. Good idea, maybe they'll buy it. I was standing at the counter waiting to ask if they could order this old country-rock album (it's not on the shelves anywhere), and they were playing "Your Long Journey" from the Plant and Krauss CD. A guy came over to the counter and picked up the case and started talking to me, like he'd known me forever. He said, "I saw Doc Watson and his daughter do this song twelve years ago at the first Folk Life festival. I memorized every word of it, hearing it one time, and still remember it." And he set the CD cover down and wandered off.

There is something strange and wonderful going on here.

First of all -- I mean, come on, Robert Plant, from Led Zeppelin? And Allison Krauss, the angelic bluegrass fiddler? What in the world sense does that make?

I had to buy the CD just to see what they were going to do, and suddenly I was sucked into the vortex. I spent many days finding the original versions of these songs, listening to different arrangements, studying the guitar parts, the harmonies, looking into the producer's own recordings. I walked around singing these songs to myself, thinking about the lyrics, wondering what's behind it all. It is just a different album, a full-body listening experience, it works on so many levels, each level reflecting back onto the others.

There are a couple of poppish hit-like tunes on here, three sort-of rockers of the old-school variety. But in tone the album is extremely introverted, not dark but dimly illuminated, as the artists walk to the edge of their personal jungle and peer into the waving black shadows of underbrush, listening to the growls and the rustling of hidden wild things. There are tempos here so slow, lugubrious, ponderous, that it seems the musicians stop between notes and start again, having had one of those dreams that cover the story of a lifetime but only take an instant to dream, like Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury's dream of the guillotine, and then they reluctantly return to the tune, refreshed and reminded of the contact between temporal life and eternity.

Which brings us to the real centerpiece here, which is the album's producer, T-Bone Burnett. Burnett is a born-again Christian. I read an interview where he said he wants to always remember that each moment touches eternity, and I think he somehow brought that insight to this crazy album, in a concrete way. He brought together a pair of opposites, baptized them in a repertoire that would challenge any artist, and pulled them out of the water to testify in the recording studio. As far as I'm concerned, this is his album, his voice speaking.

I'll start with the song that first and more definitely captured my interest: "Killing the Blues." This song was written by Rowland Salley, who has been Chris Isaaks' bass player for eighteen years or so. Salley's version of it can be heard, at least part of it, on his web site: I was not impressed by the performance. John Prine has done this song, in his inimitable Midwestern, introspective style, and Sean Keane made it an Irish song. Shawn Colvin's live recording of "Killing the Blues" is beautiful, too; the success of these diverse treatments offers proof that this really is an excellent song, not just a clever recording.

The Plant and Krauss recording starts with a tremolo electric guitar, which is one of the first effects ever used on an electric guitar and is a kind of trademark of this album. For two open chords you think Burnett (who plays guitar on the album besides producing it) is going to play "Rumble," by Link Wray, but then he stays on the same chord; this would be quite a light treatment of "Rumble," now that I think about it, maybe more like "Slap Fight," or "Raised Eyebrow" than anything evocative of an old-fashioned playground rumble. On the third chord, here come the drums, played with brushes, and, of all things, a ringing pedal steel guitar. The steel part is a very simple descending line, staying close to the chord tones, twice, a traditional intro. I know T-Bone Burnett is capable of making a statement through the arrangement, and here the statement is: take this as it is. You are about to hear an unadorned, un-gimmicked, non-fake delivery of a great song, performed by two voices that are perfectly suited for one another.

And then they sing. It's a low register for both singers, and the listener is drawn in to the scene of an autumn day, a sentimental scene with embers and moonbeams and leaves of red and gold. There is a word where the vocalists diverge, it's an imperfection, they phrase the word "on" in "they set us on fire" a little differently. Again, this is a statement: the producer could easily have covered this up, he could've fixed it in the mix. But no, these are two real people singing together, sometimes these things happen. The steel is swelling underneath the vocal, making you wonder if this is supposed to be a country song, but you know it's not -- Robert Plant can't sing a country song, can he? No, it's not a genre, it's a sound, the pedal steel really is the instrument you wanted there just because of the tone, the smooth movement from voicing to voicing, and you are forced to break your stereotype of the instrument and listen to the sound of the music and not its category.

The greatest thing about this song, the reason John Prine and everybody else did it, is the line that I wish I'd written. I am furious that this bass player wrote the line and I didn't:
Somebody said they saw me
Swinging the world by the tail

I just love that image. Partly because it's so purely, blatantly incoherent. Q: What is one thing you swing by the tail? A: Absolutely nothing. Never mind the world. But the image is perfectly evocative, you can almost feel yourself swinging the world by the tail, it's better than "Sittin' on top of the World," whether you're the Mississippi Sheiks or Bob Wills.

The vocals here are a bare duet. You can hear him, can hear her, each one distinct, you can hear them working together. The story is that the producer had each of them learn their parts as if they were singing solo, each one sings like he or she has the melody part. The drums swishing along, that steel filling in with chiming harmonics and portamentos. Okay, that was over the top, steel players don't play portamentos, they slide the bar.

The guitar solo, again, unadorned, that tremolo guitar on the lower strings, just playing the melody. The steel joins him on the second line. There is nothing to prove here, all the time in the world, they are simply killing the blues, sticking to the melody, dwelling on the melancholy of swinging the world by the tail and the brutal sadness of unrequited love. The guitarist is using the volume knob a little to exaggerate the tremolo, and the steel player does evoke a Nashville studio.

And then they come to the sad verse, and you are shocked and confused. It was bad enough to lose yourself in love, but why does your lover want you to leave? The sadness is overwhelming, but at the same time, like The Dude, the world-tail-swinger endures.

I know my family got sick of hearing me walk around singing this song, but it is too good. It falls right into the place you're looking for, devoid of sensationalism and sentimentality, heartfelt and understated. Maybe I can't explain it.

There are two songs on this CD from the "Through the Morning Through the Night," by Dillard and Clark, recorded in 1969. Why? Nobody remembers that album. It fell through a crack in history between the Byrds and the Eagles. "Polly" is as s-l-o-w as a song can be. It falls asleep between measures. I don't imagine the musicians had an easy time recording this, there is an eternity between beats. And that's certainly part of the message, the eternity that touches every moment.

The singer's bird has flown. Her name, of course, is Polly. The original starts with a standard LA-country-rock acoustic guitar intro; it's not as drearily slow as this version. The singer -- I assume this is Gene Clark -- comes in with a plaintive high-lonesome complaint:
If the wild bird could speak He'd tell the places you have been
He's been in my dreams and he knows all the ways of the wind
Polly come home again
Spread your wings to the wind
I felt much of the pain
As it begins

These are about five-part stacked harmonies, more LA than Kentucky. The Dillard and Clark version is accessible, a solo voice close to the microphone. Plant and Krauss, though, draw away. There's that tremolo guitar again, now the steel is mixed way in the back, mindful of Duane Allman's slide on "Layla," soaring behind the focal events. Robert Plant sings the verse. You hear a little Led Zep in there, but he's abandoned the flash, the thunder, he sings softly, as if he were alone in the studio -- we know he can pound you up against the far wall with his vocal power, now he's whispering, making you come close to hear. And when Allison Krauss joins him for the chorus, I can't tell if there is an echo or if they double her voice, or what is filling in, but the sound floats weightlessly, like a bird who knows all the ways of the wind.

It takes a lot of nerve to make a record like this. There is no "give the audience what they want." Nobody ever asked for an album featuring these two stars together, an album so dim, so distant, so demanding. Nobody wants to wait this long for the next note. A friend listening to this said, "They're playing with your head." Yes, they are. They're making you wait, they're making you come to them. This tremolo guitar solo will not knock you out, it's just a sound, a perfect, brooding sound.

At the end, "Polly" just seems to peter out, and I mean that in a good way. It drags and hangs, like a man contemplating suicide, afraid of the loud report of the exploding gunpowder, sorry for what his loved ones will go through, not knowing for that long moment whether he can go through with it. Maybe he lowers the gun and never mentions the thought to anyone.

The other Dillard and Clark song is the title song of their album, "Though the Morning, Through the Night." This is a country waltz about a kind man's jealousy, a good man haunted by his memories and the treachery of lost love. He knows his wife has a lover and it is driving him insane, he might kill the other man, and the thought pierces him.

Oddly, it's not Plant, but Krauss, who sings this one. I think the producer is setting a stage for the listener, he is reminding us in a jolting way that these are only songs, they are only stories, and these singers are only actors playing the parts. Can a woman imagine the anguish of a man who knows the woman he loves is seeing another? Can she know the impulse to commit violence like a man knows it? Well, Allison Krauss makes it clear she can understand the pain, and the gentleness that is her hallmark tells the listener that she will not, in fact, kill anyone, she, or rather he, will only suffer endlessly, as cuckolded lovers have always suffered.

This song gets the same tremolo and steel treatment as "Polly." It is not so morbidly slow, the emphasis is more on the lyrics and the sweet pained voice singing them, but that carefully chosen combination of electric guitar through sounds like an old Fender tremolo amp, with a clear Nashville pedal steel is unique, evocative, full.

The Dillard and Clark version, on the other hand, is more waltz-like, with piano and steel in the Nashville tradition, with the high LA harmonies. The drummer is going boom-chick-chick, it's less careful, with more of a barroom feel, you are tempted to say it's just another country song about a broken heart and burning memories.

I won't say "Through the Morning" is the best song on the Plant and Krauss album, but it is filler that keeps the mood going, a dark mood.

There are also two Everly Brothers songs on the album. Weird ones, ones I never heard before. The first one, "Gone Gone Gone," might be perceived as an attempt to get a hit on the radio. It's peppy, it's pop, you can dance to it. The two vocalists are sharp, vibrant, the song is a good one -- I don't know why this wasn't a hit for the Everly Brothers.

And the arrangement. Again, this producer, of course he wants to sell some product, he wants a hit, but it is fascinating to see how he goes about it. The song starts with a ringy-snare drum beat out of the Surfaris, I can just picture that champagne Ludwig set, ringing on the side toms, a little kind of twist beat, and then the guitar comes in, ching ching-a-ching-a-ching-a, still in Surfari-land but with a touch of tube-overdrive distortion. It's nothing, just a chord, now major, now with the seventh, just a surf riff like any kid could play. And here come the vocals! Ah, yes, he sang for Led Zeppelin, didn't he. And what? She does bluegrass -- you're kidding me. The vocals soar, they sing unison for a few words then split into beautifully blended parts. And yikes -- a little Led Zep busts out here, hot liquid emotion seeps out around the lyrics. That guitar is chugging along, those Surfari drums, the arrangement is as minimal as it can possibly be. It's all the singers and the song, and you see that this unlikely combination was just made to be. There's a vocal well-well-well near the end that you can't tell, which one of them is that? It's fun to think it's her singing this wild full-throated sound, but I think it's him -- it could be Krauss imitating him. And then that tremolo guitar, which for some strange reason is the hallmark of this album, playing a little "Gloria" or "Run For Your Life," reminiscent of the guitar on "Hanky Panky," round and round.

The other Everly Brothers song is "Stick With Me Baby," written, oddly enough, by Mel Tillis. It's a lovely mid-tempo love song about an unlikely couple who are going to make it, despite what anybody says. There's that tremolo guitar, bathed in echo this time, and minimalist drum part, nearly-whispered vocals that make you listen to the lyrics. It seems this song is about them, two singers from different universes -- who in their right mind would think that Robert Plant and Allison Krauss could ever work together? The fact is, these Everly Brothers songs really show off the profound compatibility of the two voices, the sound of the song validates its message.

One stand-out here is the nearly-klezmerish minor-to-major-and-back-again piece of weirdness called "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," Sister Rosetta being an old-time black gospel singer who really has little to do with this song. There's a mandolin, a banjo, temple blocks, Krauss's dreamlike vocal and her violin mixed behind the accompaniment; this is a gypsy-like piece, pure mood. In fact, that is one thing that draws me to this album. I am going through the songs, and there's a lot to say about them, but what you really have here is a mood, an atmosphere, that runs throughout the CD. That's what you love about the album; the songs are too long, there are too many of them, they are obscure, hard to understand, the instrumentation is sparse and spacey, yet in the end something has been done successfully, you have been touched.

"Rosetta" was written by T-Bone Burnett's ex-wife, who happens to be named Sam Phillips. I don't think her version of the song has been released yet, but you can hear it on her web site if you use the Flash player in the lower righthand corner. It is interesting to hear how Burnett brought out its inherent beauty in this version with Allison Krauss singing it. It is the kind of melody we call "haunting," and the arrangement is brave, defiantly introverted and evocative. I would like to know how they came to this sound, it does not seem to me that it just happened, somebody knew what they wanted and made this happen. My guess is that T-Bone Burnett is the one who called our attention to the intersection of this song with eternity.

The first song on album is typically the one the record company expects to be a hit. This goes back to when they'd pitch an artist to program directors at radio stations; they'd put the needle on the first track, and that's all you could really count on them listening to. "Rich Woman" fits the ticket here -- they did this one and "Gone Gone Gone" on the Grammies last night. This song was a hit for Li'l Millet and His Creoles back in 1955; other bands have done it, including the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Canned Heat. It's your basic three chords with a thumping groove. This version features that tremolo guitar, with the tremolo even exaggerated in the solos by what sounds like the musician working the volume knob -- it might be a pedal or even something done on the mix. Whatever, this thing rolls along, bluesy and slinky, with the two of them singing, slurring their words, this is sexy and streetwise and outside any genre associated with either vocalist. Just a cool, friendly studio sound, some musicians having fun. Oh yeah: "She's got the money and I've got the honey."

"Please Read the Letter" is puzzling at first. It starts with a kind of acoustic-guitar riff, reserved brushed drums, Plant's nearly-whispered, throaty vocals. It's just a couple of chords, no big melody, something off an old album he did with Jimmy Page years ago. It's interesting to go back to that. The original version is quite a bit faster, loud electric guitars, doubled-up vocals. This half-Led-Zep version feels kind of frantic. It's just a guy who writes a letter to his girl, they have to break up, "we needed so much more."

I think this song is here because of this part:
You'd better check between the lines
Please read the letter, I wrote it in my sleep
With help and consultation from
The angels of the deep

The letter is more than a letter, this is like Yates' A Vision, automatic writing dictated by a divine voice. And these songs are more than songs, they are visions of eternity, consulted by angels. Again, this song maintains the introspective, brooding ambiance that characterizes this album, but I wouldn't call this a great song. Plant and Krauss sound good together, and toward the end there is an interesting near-rave-up with some classic vocalizing from him and a droning, moody fiddle part from her, over a two-chord groove. The sense of urgency almost outdoes the song, it makes you wonder, what is the big message in the letter he wants you to read? This theme goes back, I think, to Buddy Holly's great enigmatic "Listen to Me." It doesn't say what the letter is about, really, it only pleads, please read it.

There are four songs left, all dark in their way. "Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson" is one of those paradoxical pieces like Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me," where the tempo, melody, arrangement say happy, and the lyrics say depression, misery, loss. (Well I remember Steve Allen making fun of "Oh Lonesome Me," reading those self-pitying lyrics in his cheerfulest voice.) This Little Milton classic starts with the dorkiest guitar intro, a folky riff that is repeated after every verse and at the end, and which propels the song nowhere -- which is perfect. Because this song has its non sequiturs, you might say that's what it's about, inconsistency and pointlessness. Let your loss be your lesson, it's a lesson in itself.

I would kill to hear Little Milton's version of this song. I have his Greatest Hits CD, but neither that nor the p2p search applications turn up this obscure thing. This Plant and Krauss version is like a country-bop shuffle, cheerfully popping along over a lyric about the singer treating his woman bad, she threatens to leave, she leaves, and now he's kicking himself.
Now she's gone
I realize I lost the best thing there is
And my pride keeps tellin' me
Let your loss be your lesson

Reminds me of John Lee Hooker's "Serve You Right to Suffer," if the singer was talking to himself.

And of course, again there is this interesting twist -- not an accident -- Allison Krauss, the daintiest, most feminine little thing in the world, singing the man's part. Hard to imagine her out partying and drinking and cheating, but there she goes. Something bizarre has motivated the album's producer to push this CD right over the edge -- nobody in their right mind would have sweet, angelic, Allison Krauss rocking out on this self-loathing Little Milton song, and that might just be why they're doing it. It's one of those things, so crazy it just might work. Well, yes, it does, it really does.

The melody and lyric of this song, plus that intro, work together in the kludgiest way imaginable. It's a rocking three-chord ditty, going along in the predicable direction, and then it's like the verse runs out of lines, runs out of rhymes and she sings, "Let your loss be your lesson." And then there's that stupid intro line again, and then another verse. Nobody would write a song like this, would they? Yes, they would.

It's like looking at a Marc Chagall painting. Did you ever wonder why there are goats flying around in it, and everything's blue? No, you don't wonder those things, you accept them, and enjoy the flying-blue-goatness of it.

Two of the darkest songs in the set are Tom Waits' "Trampled Rose" and Townes van Zandt's "Nothin'."

"Trampled Rose" starts with a banjo, and a ghost of a vocal (Allison Krauss) rising up out of it. The melody wanders eerily over the plunk of the banjo, strings play low in the background, there is some strange percussion stuff. Remember the gypsy caravan where the wolf-man -- I mean the real wolf-man, Lon Chaney, Jr. -- gets his palm read, in the fog, and the gypsy woman sees something frightening? That's where this song comes from. She looks into his face and refuses to tell him that she has seen the mark on his palm.

This album is about the sound, the ambiance. Songs don't necessarily go anywhere, or come from anywhere, harmonic tides shift without resolving, centering now here and now there, now certain and now ambiguous, these songs force you to be in the moment, to feel the feeling. "Trampled Rose" is nothing but a feeling.
Long way going to
Get my medicine
Sky's the autumn grey of a lonely wren

Piano from a window played
Gone tomorrow, gone yesterday

I found it in the street
At first I did not see
Lying at my feet
A trampled rose

This is Allsion Krauss pushed beyond genre, beyond predictability, it is pure sound. The urgency of the final banjo, forcefully plucked against the battering of a percussion instrument that sounds like a box -- it might be a cajon -- all of it pulls together to produce a poignant sense of an emergency that you can't do anything about.

Waits' own version, interestingly, has all the elements, the percussion, the plunkiness, the ghostly voice rising above the lyric, but I'm afraid he has been outdone. T-Bone Burnett's production, the sound that is at once sparse and full, simply sounds better than Waits' murky and amateurish version, which might be a demo in comparison.

Then there is the nadir (or zenith) of the album: Townes van Zandt's "Nothin'." Van Zandt was a self-destructive singer-songwriter, dead now, who left behind a string of songs too good to be hits. He was the ultimate example of living the life, the artist's artist. And this song, "Nothin'," is, without being self-consciously existentialist, as nihilistic and negative as anyone can be. After you sink into this song, you feel like you need to go out and talk to somebody. You will want to turn the lights on, even in the daytime.

It starts with the most jarring electric guitar. Every time I hear it, the word that comes to mind is inappropriate. This is a ballad here, fer cryin' out loud, why's this guy sound like Hendrix doing the Star Spangled Banner? It's wrong, like a mosquito sucking blood on a part of your body that you can't reach, and you can see it, but you can't shake it off you. Then Robert Plant's clear, unforgiving, unfrightened voice sails in, almost sweet in its tone.

No one wants to hear this. It's frightening, jarring. What this sumbitch has done is go and make friends with the goddamn Mystery Tramp and bring him home to sit on the couch and watch football with him, drunk and stinking and leering at his daughters and his wife. You don't want that.

The verses are accompanied by a little bit of electric guitar, banjo, a tambourine, and between verses all hell breaks loose. That electric guitar is out of control, it's distorted, with big full tube-melting chords, all Townshend wind-ups and broken picks, and guess what -- that "all hell" that breaks loose is Allison Krauss's fiddle. You didn't realize that when Johnny outplayed the devil it wasn't by playing faster, it was by playing deeper. And you didn't realize that Johnny was a cute, innocent young lady named Allison.

The Doc Watson song "Your Long Journey" that closes the album is just a pure bluegrass song of the God-loving, heartfelt type. It opens with a stringed instrument, a dulcimer I think. Someone is lamenting the passing of the one they love. There's no more to say than that. The two vocalists blend beautifully in this deep heartbreaker. All traditional acoustic instruments, a little banjo, a traditional theme, trust in God and the sorrow of losing a loved one. As the album comes to a close, you have to feel that they have taken you on a ride back to where the bluebird was all along.

I should comment on the visual appearance of Plant and Krauss standing side by side. He's ... well, he's older than me, let's say, he's weathered a few storms, I do believe Led Zeppelin partied harder than the average citizen for quite a few years. Looking at him standing beside her in her youthful beauty, I'm sorry but the word that comes to mind is "lecherous." He reminds me a satyr out of some Picasso drawing, one of those erotic prints he created one after the other. Allison Krauss, on the other hand, is young, pure, a Google search for "Allison Krauss" and "angelic" turns up thirty-seven thousand hits. Her youth and sweetness contrast with Plant's lecherousness, but at the same time his presence adds depth to her, you can't imagine that a girl that sweet could handle him in the recording studio, but obviously she did. He has given interviews where he thanked her for teaching him how to sing, imagine that! Somehow the virgin tamed the satyr, not the other way around.

I never expect the Grammies to go to the right people. There were a bunch of rappers and commercial boy-groups nominated, you just know the Jonah Brothers are going to win all the awards. So I was really pleased to see that an album of real substance won over the voting.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, you're really excited about this, Jim. I didn't finish reading your whole post but will tonight.

I always think I discovered Alison Krause. I was pushing her on everyone since the first Union Station CD.

I went to see these guys at Post Pavillion this summer. T-Bone played with them. The whole effect was magical. Her haunting voice and ethereal dress billowing in the breeze. Plant transformed some blues tunes into hypnosis, especially "Nothing".

The crowd was most interesting. A mix of bluegrass gospel types and a Hell's Angels motorcycle and leather crowd. It was an "only in America" scene.

Plant did do three Zeppelin numbers, although not the ones I was expecting. They were alchemized into the Raising Sand milieu.

At the encore, he came out and said that when he first got to Nashville, he was scared of the whole Bible-based culture but that T-Bone helped him to see things in a new light. After this vague statement he said, "Now, let's go to church", and they sang three folk gospel tunes for the finale. The heavy metal dudes and their tatooed ladies just gaped.

Afterwards, we talked to friends we ran into up on the lawn and they said they had recently seen Dylan in concert and after seeing Plant, they think Dylan shouldn't have the nerve to charge money for his shows.

btw, don't go to Barnes and Noble looking for old stuff, especially obscure. I recently talked to a clerk there who had never heard of Wilson Pickett. I'm sure you can find what you were looking for on the internet. You can probably download straight to your computer.

also, the Jonas Brothers are not that bad. I've heard their latest album and while I wouldn't recommend buying it, there are some power chord moments when you think you might be listening to Deep Purple. Who knows but these boys may have some surprises in the future.

February 09, 2009 3:27 PM  
Blogger BlackTsunami said...

I knew Allison Kraus was going to clean up. She wins an armload almost every year.

February 09, 2009 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yo, Diego. Outstanding. I'm on it.

February 09, 2009 11:26 PM  

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