TERRY GROSS, host:
Robert Plant has a new solo album called "Band of Joy." It's also the name of a group he was in before Led Zeppelin. Rock critic Ken Tucker says if the album title correctly suggests an interest in looking back and trying out older musicals styles, there's nothing nostalgic or musty about the results.
(Soundbite of song, "Angel Dance")
Mr. ROBERT PLANT (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing): Good night. Sleep tight. Big bright sun has gone away. You know, it's gone away. Good-bye...
KEN TUCKER: "Band of Joy" commences with that song, "Angel Dance," a piece of music that could have surfaced from the primordial ooze of blues, its guitar riff is that elemental. It's a cover of a Los Lobos song, but Plant makes the song his own with his instantly recognizable high-tenor yowl. His co-producer, the wonderful guitarist Buddy Miller, is the one laying down the oily muck on "Angel Dance." Elsewhere, other collaborators are crucial, as well.
(Soundbite of song, "House of Cards")
Mr. PLANT: (Singing) Oh, the rain is falling and the wild wind rise. It'll shake your windows and it will rattle your doors. Oh, blow down this house of cards. Blow down this house of cards. And they're washing the streets...
TUCKER: That song, a version of Richard Thompson's "House of Cards," is rearranged to sound like stomping blues and features harmony vocals by Patty Griffin, who sings on a number of songs here. A few years ago, Plant's collaboration with Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand," was one of those big, mass-audience, award-winning, left-field late-career hits in the tradition of Bonnie Raitt's "Nick of Time" and Tina Turner's "Private Dancer."
This time around, Plant is still inviting Krauss, as well as Griffin, to keep in touch with his feminine side, but it's really his mind-meld with Buddy Miller that matters most. Plant and Miller gathered a group of songs that have little in common except arrangements that frame unhappiness and heartache as permanent states of affairs.
(Soundbite of song, "You Can't Buy My Love")
Mr. PLANT: (Singing) You could give me money, diamonds and pearls but you can't buy my love for no money in the world. You can't buy my love. No you can't buy my love for no money in the world. You can't buy my love. Now you so good. Baby I'm so bad. 'Cause you done lost the best thing you ever had. Oh, you can't buy my love.
TUCKER: No, that's not some quirky Led Zeppelin take on The Beatles "Can't Buy Me Love" - it's a cover of a 1963 Barbara Lynn soul song that Plant says he found on the CD that usually accompanies the annual music issue of The Oxford American magazine. Proof, as if you need it, that reading dead-tree publications can only help you in ways you cannot predict. For real soul, however, that song is exceeded by "Falling in Love Again," with Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott providing uncanny Southern gospel harmonies.
(Soundbite of song, "Falling in Love Again")
Mr. PLANT: (Singing) I'm falling in love again. I'm falling in love again. It might break my break, it might even tear it apart but I'm falling in love again, oh. I'm thinking about one but you, every day. I'm thinking of about no one but you every day. I think of you all the time, oh darling, please be mine. And I'm falling in love again.
TUCKER: "Band of Joy" has its moments of fussiness - turns out we really don't need another version of the turn-of-the-century folk song "Cindy I'll Marry You Some Day" or a rendition of "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down" so self-righteous, it makes you nostalgic for Jimmy Page's fondness for the occult mysticism of Aleister Crowley. On the other hand, Plant and Miller improve upon Townes Van Zandt's hardboiled romanticism in covering "Harm's Swift Way."
(Soundbite of song, "Harm's Swift Way")
Mr. PLANT: (Singing) There is a home out of harm's swift way. I set myself to find. I swore to my love I would bring her there. Then I left my love behind. The desert was long, the mountain side. The road ran steep and winding. The promises so easily made, unbearably yet binding. Oh me, oh my, whos gonna count my time? Oh me, oh my, whos gonna count my time?
TUCKER: In fact, that phrase, harm's swift way, is a compressed summation of this entire album: a collection of songs that might, for a few moments, convince you that courting danger and disappointment can be a heroic adventure. It's an unlikely proposition, but who can deny the heroic power of Robert Plant's voice when placed in these stark, startling settings?
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Robert Plant's new solo album, "Band of Joy."