Fearsomely Authentic

Jonathan Bellman

I have just finished listening to Raising Sand, the T-Bone Burnett-produced Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration that won Album of the Year.  To me, the thing sizzles, and I’m a fan of neither country music nor Plant.  I never liked Zeppelin much; I thought of them as screechy, strutting posers and only really, really liked a few odd songs (“Kashmir,” “Boogie With Stu,” “Hot Dog,” and “Hey Hey What Can I Do” come to mind).  But here the entire thing is magic: Krauss and Plant blend superbly, with no diva-isms from either, and T-Bone Burnett proves, once again, the extent to which he ownsthe recording process.  Here’s why: Country mawkishness (she done left me, yore dyin’, etc.) are suddenly not mawkish, but nakedly human.  The textures are spare but perfect (banjo, fiddle, and autoharp spice up a lean, taut instrumental and recording aesthetic.  And as for that:

Jay Bellerose’s almost impossibly wonderful drumming sometimes sounds random, sometimes sounds as if he’s so tired and sad he can barely get to the beats, sometimes evokes the low-tech industrial drive of an old machine shop, and sometimes crackles with rockabilly energy.  Add to this instrumentalists, including Burnett himself, of such command and experience that the feel of each song is blisteringly vivid and authentic.  One does not think, “Oh, a rockabilly number”; one thinks “My God, I’m hearing not only the best of 1956, I can hear Eddy Cochrane, Ricky Nelson et al. breathing in the background, and the grease and sweat of the time to boot.”  This for number after number: a great song is given a superb interpretation by the singers, unimprovable instrumental treatments, and a recording aesthetic that captures an entire cultural ethos, somehow, be it blues or country or lament or rockabilly or whatever.

If this sounds like polysyllabic, pretentious slop I don’t care.  Listen to the CD yourself.  You will admit I’m right.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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5 Responses to Fearsomely Authentic

  1. Mark says:

    Jonathan, I have to respectfully disagree.
    First, Led Zep is a great band. Fiirst, the guitar playing of Jimmy Page. His tone is thin, and he is by no means a virtuoso, he seems constantly on a tightrope, his fingers ready to get stuck. But…. but … almost every figure and idea that he has is interesting and original. So you have this wonderful thin guitar sound (metal) contrasting with the most powerful rock drumming imaginable in John Bonham (heavy). And granted, Plant’s vocals can be screechy, but their somehow appropriate for the sound. Now John Paul Jones adds musicality. The band can be hard, loud and fast, or surprisingly tender and melancholy. And while you may not buy into the Celtic lore or the Satanistic mumbo jumbo, they give the band an identity. Man, for me, there are times when nothing sounds better than””Royal Orleans,” from the Presence album.
    As for the Plant / Krauss joint. I’ll grant you it’s a fine piece of work. But it’s like, how to put it? Like Norah Jones’s music. It’s good, but it lacks greatness. Norah Jones has a nice touch on the piano, sweet vocals, good songs, excellent sidemen, but the overall result is merely soothing and pleasant. The sort of thing you want to listen to on an airplane, to take your mind off crashing into the sea. I get the same feeling with “Raising Sand.” I appreciate that it is quality music. But compare “Fortune Teller” as sung by Plant on this album, and the version cut by Benny Spellman back in the day. Spellman cuts ol’ Robert on that one. There is a bounce that is absent on the Raising Sand version of the tune. And Allison Krauss, whom I adore, just isn’t right for rockabilly or blues. She should stick to bluegrass and sad country pop numbers.

  2. mark says:

    Jonathan, I have to respectfully disagree.
    First, Led Zep is a great band. Fiirst, the guitar playing of Jimmy Page. His tone is thin, and he is by no means a virtuoso, he seems constantly on a tightrope, his fingers ready to get stuck. But…. but … almost every figure and idea that he has is interesting and original. So you have this wonderful thin guitar sound (metal) contrasting with the most powerful rock drumming imaginable in John Bonham (heavy). And granted, Plant’s vocals can be screechy, but their somehow appropriate for the sound. Now John Paul Jones adds musicality. The band can be hard, loud and fast, or surprisingly tender and melancholy. And while you may not buy into the Celtic lore or the Satanistic mumbo jumbo, they give the band an identity. Man, for me, there are times when nothing sounds better than””Royal Orleans,” from the Presence album.
    As for the Plant / Krauss joint. I’ll grant you it’s a fine piece of work. But it’s like, how to put it? Like Norah Jones’s music. It’s good, but it lacks greatness. Norah Jones has a nice touch on the piano, sweet vocals, good songs, excellent sidemen, but the overall result is merely soothing and pleasant. The sort of thing you want to listen to on an airplane, to take your mind off crashing into the sea. I get the same feeling with “Raising Sand.” I appreciate that it is quality music. But compare “Fortune Teller” as sung by Plant on this album, and the version cut by Benny Spellman back in the day. Spellman cuts ol’ Robert on that one. There is a bounce that is absent on the Raising Sand version of the tune. And Allison Krauss, whom I adore, just isn’t right for rockabilly or blues. She should stick to bluegrass and sad country pop numbers.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Clarification: I stressed that my feelings about Zeppelin were my *taste*, not anything I’d make an argument for. I will say that I really disagree about *Raising Sand*–Norah Jones is beyond bland, from what I’ve heard, both playing and singing. RS is the antithesis of that.

  4. Mark says:

    Perhaps I’m to harsh in my judgement, but if so, it’s because, even though I’m no spring chicken myself, I feel like the grammy for best album should maybe go to somebody younger, somebody whose music better reflects the moment, rather than going to a disc that looks back 40 or 50 years. Maybe that motivates my contentiousness rather than any real flaw in the album itself.

  5. Franz Satriani says:

    You do have good taste after all! You were off about Satriani awhile back, but this Plant/Krauss disc is fantastic.
    Perhaps someday you’ll grow past your distaste for electric guitar (I’ll try to ignore you Zeppelin comment), but this is certainly a step in the right direction. Bravo!
    -Franz Satriani

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