With a core band of producer/guitarist T-Bone Burnett, the usually anything-but-traditional guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose, this habit both vocalists share of picking the best teammates available continues. If an album can “sound” sepia toned, Raising Sand most certainly does. Burnett is as recognizable in his production qualities as these singers are in their talents, making recordings of extraordinary depth, softness and soul. The gritty, throbbing opener “Rich Woman” sets the album up nicely, a slice of reworked vintage blues that finds Plant and Krauss supporting each other with effortless grace. Burnett and Ribot craft layers of undulating guitars beneath the vocalists, building gently with each verse. Krauss’s fiddle comes out on an ethereal reading of Sam Phillips’ “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” and her vocal floats above an ever so slightly skewed arrangement (with Ribot switching to banjo) that serves as stylistic foreshadowing for the Tom Waits tune that appears later in the album.
The Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” and Naomi Neville’s “Fortune Teller” are the most up-tempo cuts on Raising Sand, but this album truly shines in the subtlety of tracks like Gene Clark’s “Through The Morning, Through The Night,” Waits’ “Trampled Rose,” and a beautifully simplified version of Page and Plant’s “Please Read The Letter.” The latter sheds the “rock” trappings of the original that appeared on Walking Into Clarksdale, and the result is as heartbreaking and haunting as anything you’ll hear this year. “Trampled Rose” sneaks through shifting time signatures while Krauss soars over a bed of Dobro, pump organ and toy piano — all the while retaining the unsettling imagery and vibe of Waits’ initial version.
The blast of tortured electric guitar that opens “Nothin’” deepens the sense of isolation and hopelessness conveyed by Townes Van Zandt’s lyrics. Plant takes the lead here, his vocals tiptoeing through the wall of noise generated by Burnett and Norman Blake’s acoustics, Ribot’s appropriately screaming guitar and banjo (well, the banjo isn’t really screaming, per se, but you get the drift) and Krauss’s virtuosic fiddle. As a guitarist, one of the treats on Raising Sand is hearing Marc Ribot’s chameleon-like skills strewn throughout the songs. Long regarded as one of the most daring players on the New York avant garde jazz scene, hearing him play such, well, normal stuff is quite fun. His utterly perfect break in “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson” should put to rest any notions that players who spend the majority of their time as “outside” as possible can’t also shift gears and go “inside” when needed.
Raising Sand is something unique in an industry filled with “product” that’s anything but. It doesn’t give up everything on the first listen, or second and third- but you know it’s something special within seconds. Not surprising, considering the staggering amount of talent that made this album happen. “Highly recommended” doesn’t really do it justice, so let’s try “mandatory listening for those of you with ears.”