"Raising Sand" is the stuff of which music lovers' dreams are made: an unexpected collision of two distinct but complementary worlds that transcend the sum of their parts to create something unique and mesmerizing.
Led Zeppelin main man Robert Plant and country/bluegrass treasure Alison Krauss. Who'd have thunk it?
Apparently they did. The mutual admirers have been meaning to get together for seven years. Better late than never. On "Raising Sand," out today on Rounder Records, there is no uncomfortable push or pull. Instead of seesawing between any expectations created by their previous output, both artists happily play in the sonic landscapes of famed producer T Bone Burnett, who has worked with Elvis Costello and Los Lobos and helmed the Grammy-winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack.
For his part, Burnett chose an intriguing set of off-the-beaten-path covers - from Tom Waits's "Trampled Rose" to Page and Plant's "Please Read The Letter" - chucked the original arrangements, and hired a band of like-minded mavericks, including always-inventive guitarist Marc Ribot.
This adventurous, three-to-tango atmosphere (four if you include the top-notch band) is evident from the outset as quivering guitars and distant percussion lay the groundwork for the tender yet spicy blues of "Rich Woman."
Here, as on almost every track, there is an intimacy to Plant and Krauss's vocals; they don't move side by side but are enmeshed, often in hushed or joyous choirs of harmony. That intimacy is enhanced by Burnett's painstaking placement of instruments - steel guitar, banjo, organ, various forms of percussion - not always doing what you'd expect, like the dark-and-dirty detour Krauss takes with her normally lyrical fiddle on "Nothin'."
The austere "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," written by Burnett's ex-wife, Sam Phillips, at times feels like a raga and at times like circus music from a Wes Anderson movie. "Polly Come Home," sung by Plant in a controlled murmur - one of several silken modes employed throughout - is almost painfully erotic. Rowland Salley, Chris Isaak's bassist, contributes the dreamy, slow chug "Killing the Blues," which wouldn't sound out of place on one of his boss's records.
Each track sets a different mood - a lullaby, a seduction, a prayer, a remembrance - but adheres to Burnett's elusive but recognizable template of blending vintage rock, country, folk, and blues with a lot of space. That space gives his work both an earthy quality and something approaching the otherworldly without ever veering into psychedelia.
The only listeners who may be disappointed in "Raising Sand" are those who prefer Plant in full-on storm-the-drawbridge mode. The famous howl is mostly absent but several songs feature variations on his eruptive ululations. Krauss's ethereal soprano is in grade-A form and she works expertly to enfold his voice like an angel's wings.
On "Stick With Me Baby," a Mel Tillis tune cut by the Everly Brothers, Krauss and Plant play a pair whose union is doubted around town, but they decide to keep their own counsel. "Let them say what they may," they croon, "stick with me baby, we'll find a way."
On "Raising Sand," with Burnett's help, that's exactly what they do.