RePLAY is the little indulgent side of us coming out – every so often we’ll revisit a forgotten song or album, something that perhaps would have been better championed at the time with the existence of social media. In other words, if you didn’t listen to these at the time, you really should now. This week: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand.
When you say the name Robert Plant, very few people would subsequently think of the words ‘elegiac’, ‘measured’ or ‘heartbreaking beauty’ (no offence, Bobby – saves us having to think of that Diana Ross x Mick Hucknall barnet). So when 2007’s Raising Sand emerged, we scoffed a little – it was an album that saw Plant join forces with country music doyenne Alison Krauss and the production legend that is T Bone Burnett, the latter most recently doing the rounds for the stellar soundtrack to US series Nashville. Now, everyone knows that we here at PressPLAY are a little bit country (and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll), but this mad mismatch made us scoff a little bit. Wouldn’t Plant’s iconic Led Zep aura overshadow the fragility of Krauss?
The moment Raising Sand’s opening strains reach your ears, there’s not a single reason to worry. Rich Woman’s dark layers buttress this strange mix of Plant and Krauss, their harmonies baffling in their perfection. It’s no fluke – Killing the Blues carries the union forward, and even on a song where Krauss takes centre stage (Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us), Plant’s contributions are so atmospheric and relevant that the tracks would be bereft without one of them.
But it’s the middle section that delivers utter joy, the likes of which no Americana album has ever matched. Primarily, it’s the devastating take on Gene Clark’s Polly Come Home (below) that emerges the album standout. Curiously, it’s a song the duo never performed live; probably a good thing, as we’re not quite sure anyone would remain composed in its presence. Almost funereal, it sees Plant at his most delicate while wisps of Krauss’s voice back him up to create something so unspeakably gorgeous that to say more would ruin it.
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Similarly, another Clark standard gets an update that floors you. Through the Morning, Through the Night is the Krauss-led country ballad that ticks all the boxes we expect from the genre; what sets it apart is Krauss’s delivery, that resigned vulnerability, supported by Plant in the chorus. We wouldn’t be surprised if this is the template Burnett was trying to achieve with his Rayna/Deacon moments on Nashville, but this is without doubt the finest of modern country: bare, pining, and unfailing in its ability to move you.
It’s a shame that the lead single, Gone Gone Gone, stuck out a little while sandwiched between these two gems, though it does bring a welcome change of pace. Meanwhile, second single Please Read The Letter turned out to be the right choice, as it’s again the perfect blend between generations, between old and new school. The rest of the album continues with a broad mix of uptempo country and slower numbers, but never once do the voices jar; that there’s almost 25 years between the two singers doesn’t register a fraction.
Even after six years, Raising Sand is as fresh as ever; moreover, it’s still such a remarkable feat from everyone involved. The gentle updates of country classics, the sparse and understated orchestration, even the skeletal singing – in the face of so much modern over-production, having something so stripped back both musically and lyrically is still a joy. The emotions are never overwrought: this isn’t Parton’s country music, though nor is it Gene Clark’s. Instead, it thoroughly belongs to this barmy trinity of Plant, Krauss, and Burnett. It’s sad that there’s been no talk of them doing a follow-up, but perhaps it’s a case of wishing for a sequel to a film that’s already perfect – sometimes it’s just better to admire the original time and time again.