Album Review: Robert Plant, 'lullaby and ... the Ceaseless Roar'

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robert plant lullaby and the ceaseless roar
Robert Plant, 'lullaby and ... the ceaseless roar' (© 2014 Nonesuch Records.)

    

It must be cool to be Robert Plant.

Imagine his life in the '70s. Plucked from Birmingham, England, bar-band obscurity, Led Zeppelin started a blues band (The New Yardbirds), but then through the alchemy of Page / Plant / Bonham / Jones, imagined themselves to be Vikings in the "Immigrant Song" and then lived out that fantasy, both inspiring and pillaging America's rock 'n' roll youth, sacks of gold and fair maidens by the score, holed up at the Chateau Marmont shouting "I'm a golden God" while hanging naked off the hotel balcony. As a member of the most successful rock band at the time of rock's greatest success (and excess), Plant made enough money to never have to do anything for money again.

The '80s were a hangover — punk and post-punk ridiculed Zeppelin's propensity for pomposity, then came Bonzo's death by alcohol, Page's weird flirtations with the occult and washed-up British singers (Paul Rogers, David Coverdale?), the tragic death of Plant's son and an inconsistent solo career — Plant making MTV videos just seemed wrong! Suddenly he was a man out of time. Additionally, the desire to distance himself from his Zeppelin past was understandable but didn't stop the fans from asking for a reunion.

Eventually Plant learned to accept and embrace his past, while continuing to move towards the future. In the '90s, Page and Plant did reunite to tour under their own names, to reinvent some Zep classics and to produce new material. Finally in 2007, the Zeppelin (with John Bonham's son Jason on drums) played a massive show in tribute to their mentor, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, with speculation of a tour to follow, but it was not to be, and Plant turned down a potential $200-million in offers, saying he didn't want to "tour like a bunch of bored old men following the Rolling Stones around."

So what did he do in the 2000s instead of taking the money and traipsing around America on a sexagenarian victory lap? He moved to Austin, Texas, started dating Patty Griffin, and plunged into the heart of American music — recording the wildly successful duet album with Alison Krauss and a series of solo jaunts that allowed Plant to explore his crate-digging passion for artists as diverse as Arthur Lee, the Everly Brothers and Low. Apparently his transatlantic relationship with Griffin did not survive (Plant noted his penchant for cider as one cause of the breakup!).

Over the past two years, Plant jettisoned his mostly American Band of Joy to create the Sensational Shape Shifters, a mostly British backing group whose members have played with artists like Massive Attack, Portishead, Cast and Brian Eno, along with curve ball / secret weapon Juldeh Camara, a Gambian singer who plays the ritti, a one-string fiddle. The resulting mélange is heard on lullaby and... the Ceaseless Roar, an album that combines trip-hop beats with folk melodies, electronics with psychedelic guitars, and Plant's and the musician's immersion and connections between the past and future, primal blues and world beats, and the mystery of rock 'n' roll wrapped up in an iconic voice.

This is Plant the conjurer, drawing together disparate traditions, building a delicious gumbo filled with straight-line power but also diversionary side trips. The further out he and the band take us, the better — like on the opening track, a re-write of the traditional Stanley Brothers' folk song, "Little Maggie" — mixing propulsive looped and live drums, ominous synth washes, banjo, African ritti, and a restrained vocal that conveys the Zeppelin description of "light and shade," plus a tension left waiting for release. It opens your ears and your mind to musical possibilities — apparently the kind of possibility Plant doesn't think he could conceive by returning to make music with Jimmy Page. It's an American folk song reinvented by 21st-century world troubadours.

Lullaby might be Plant's best album of his solo career — from radio single "Rainbow" or the guitar-driven "Embrace Another Fall," to the gorgeous ballad "A Stolen Kiss" that contains the album title as a lyric to describe the elliptical eternity of an ocean / a love / a song.

The weakest moments might be the songs that are delivered the most straight forwardly — maybe they were outtakes from a rumored second Allison Krauss collab, or from his work with the American-leaning Band of Joy?

But no matter the song, there's a gorgeous heaviness and weight to the sound of lullaby — it's the kind of album that rewards careful listening to the production and arrangements — why did they use an e-bow here? A djembe there? Moog bass? — while at the same time allowing your brain to sit back and just take it in. It's a record that's modern and ancient at the same time, with African rhythms that accent odd beats melding with the blues, trip hop, dub and rock and roll.

This might sound like a cliché in 2014, but it's a record that begs to be heard on vinyl on a great stereo system. Kinda like Led Zeppelin II back in 1970.

What do you think of the album? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  • Interview: Robert Plant With a successful career spanning more than 45 years, Robert Plant isn't just a talented musician; he's a rock legend. Plant recently caught up with United States of Americana host Bill DeVille to talk about his new album, <em>Lullaby And... The Ceaseless Roar</em>.
  • Interview: Robert Plant With a successful career spanning more than 45 years, Robert Plant isn't just a talented musician; he's a rock legend. Plant recently caught up with United States of Americana host Bill DeVille to talk about his new album, <em>Lullaby And... The Ceaseless Roar</em>.

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