It's not hard, listening to Band of Joy, to understand why Robert Plant should have resisted such potentially lucrative offers for a Led Zeppelin reunion tour.
Plant is one of a select few rock musicians of his generation to have sustained an inquisitive musical potency throughout his career, and probably the only one to have completely reinvented his own modus operandi with substantial success, morphing from the shrieking, priapic blues-hound of his youth into the warmer, more reflective folk and country singer that made this album.
It's a manoeuvre which all singers have to face as they grow older and their voice gets deeper, and for Plant it's virtually the equivalent of slipping from counter-tenor to bass-baritone. That he managed it with increased profile, sales and awards (for Raising Sand) is little short of miraculous; that he should now extend that success with what is largely a further selection of cover versions reborn as timeless folk-blues antiques speaks volumes about the imaginative sensitivity that Plant and co-producer Buddy Miller have brought to bear on the project.
The album opens with its most infectious cut, a version of Los Lobos's "Angel Dance" in which mandolin dances nimbly over the deep, throbbing pow-wow pulse, while Plant's cajoling vocal blends persuasively with those of Miller and Patty Griffin, both well-versed in the subtleties of country harmonies. The three voices continue their alignment on Richard Thompson's "House of Cards", which with its warning that "they're washing the streets with the blood of your kind", leads into darker, more menacing territory, as Miller's skirling guitar drone combines astringently with Darrell Scott's mandolin. "Central Two-O-Nine" is perkier, a 12-string skiffle number inspired by, but not beholden to, Lightnin' Hopkins, into which Plant and Miller have tipped a dollop of satanic blues imagery about black mares and long black trains. It neatly balances the more sombre, watchful tone of "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" later in the album, on which Plant's murmured vocal and the dry-gulch plunking of Scott's banjo evokes a vista of dusty rural hardship and superstition.
That song in turn seems linked with the similarly refurbished traditional piece "Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday", whose mysterious, predatory lyric contains intimations of transgression that defeat sober analysis, tapping into some subconscious vein of desire: "Cindy got religion/ She had it once before/ She spilt it on a Saturday/ Upon a hard wood floor". This constant to-and-fro between god and satan, good and bad, lust and piety, acts like a gyroscope at the album's heart, and finds its most potent release in the two covers of songs by the Mormon indie trio Low, "Monkey" and "Silver Rider", which respectively balance suicidal impulses and dark warnings of "the great destroyer" within glittering drone-rock settings. But equally when exulting in the rolling simplicity of Barbara Lynn's "You Can't Buy My Love", or sinking into the fathomless melancholy of Townes Van Zandt's "Harm's Swift Way", this grips one's imagination with a compulsion rare even among Plant's most exalted peers.
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