Some rock icons make the inevitable covers record as a means to show either how diverse and inclusive they are or, by their selection of songs, how cool and hip they are. Robert Plant has nothing to prove, of course, when he digs into the record bin for inspiration. His choices are instructive as to where his foggy ol' head is at these days, which is thankfully still rooted in his beloved American roots music but (just as thankfully) he's also knocked the sand out of his ears from his last album, that muddy but somehow universally acclaimed outing with newgrass queen Alison Krauss.
"Band of Joy" is a title taken from the name of Plant's pre-Led Zeppelin band, but it really has nothing to do with that band. No one's been reunited here. What's been reconnected, perhaps, is the joy Plant experienced as a teen, chasing his newfound passions for music down strange and exciting rabbit holes. While not quite exuberant, "Band of Joy" is a mostly thrilling record of discovery, even a little of the old conquest.
That Plant cared enough about the music of Los Lobos not only to open his new album with one of their songs but also to join them onstage early this summer at Taste of Chicago is particularly instructive. Los Lobos always has been a crucible of a band, mixing and firing a great many cultural sounds into a stew that always has a real fire beneath it -- that ballsy bottom end. Plant's reading of "Angel Dance" is little more musically than a single bass chord panting underneath the 62-year-old's remarkably smooth vocals, plus a little mandolin. In discussing this record, Plant has cited "Led Zeppelin III" several times, saying he had that seminal album's mix of acoustic and electric in mind throughout the recording of "Band of Joy." The grinding low chords, the spidery mandolins and dobros and banjos (all hail the great Darrell Scott for those contributions) -- it produces a wicked tension underpinning several tracks, namely the slow-rocking Richard Thompson song "House of Cards" and the simple old folk tune "Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday."
Two songs by the band Low -- "Silver Rider" and "Monkey," both eerily similar here -- master this alluring unease, as Plant and his new female duet partner, Patty Griffin, deliver positively pastoral chants and ah's while a restless, low-strung electric guitar fidgets, wriggles and twists underneath them. Some throw-aways ease the strain ("You Can't Buy Me Love," the Honeydripper-ish "Falling in Love Again"), but mostly "Band of Joy" finds the golden god at leisure yet still providing the earth with a little tremble.