Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:March 13th, 2009 09:37 EST
Raising Sand is the Best Piece of Americana Since The Band`s Music From The Big Pink!

Raising Sand is the Best Piece of Americana Since The Band`s Music From The Big Pink!

By John G. Kays



Raising Sand Cover

Great Caesar`s Ghost, heavens ta mergatroid, (as Snagle Puss use to say) by cracky, Robert Plant IS a God on Raising Sand " (Rounder) and Alison Krauss IS an Appalachian Sappho, fiddling feistily and piping odes of love-lost in pleasant pitch. Yet T Bone Burnett is Zeus himself pulling the marionette strings of these sundry lesser gods, picking up perfect songs, providing fresh arrangements for such rarities, and using a stack of veteran musicians who bless us with subtleties unfolding with each new listen. Raising Sand " is a rusty squeeze box, a faded glass menagerie, a curio of a long lost era that belongs to none. I`ve been to Candyland and I`ve played Candyland (but I`ve never been to Electric Ladyland, but sure would dig it); nonetheless the bonding of this odd couple, twilight of the gods arena rocker and smoky mountain diva, works for reasons unknown, a perfect storm of banjo, golden throats, fiddle, electric guitar, a thousand permutations of percussion, and a genius record producer who knows his way around the block and then some.

Plant & Krauss at ACL


I`ve invoked a mystery muse for this tidbit, a forgotten recipe stuffed in a ceramic Elvis cookie jar, crooning away on a microphone, and thus I`m "In Search of a Lost Chord` here (in so many words), and so gather fodder from what I have compiled from my forefathers, the Maximilien Robespierres (would you believe the Vladimir Lenins?) of rock music criticism. I can still remember seeing Lester Bangs popping a vinyl LP on the turntable, then waxing hysterically, or cursin` the rock stars who wail these tunes or spit these riffs out an` wax em in so many grooves for hungry freaks. I frantically turned this platter Raising Sand " over more than 150 times, stood on my head, read other coverage, isolated the instruments, listened to each section of every song, but found only an ineffability present, some alien sounds that left me on a vessel with no particular destination in mind, both in terms of the process for telling and the isolation of the musical DNA contained within the album itself.


My review is a distillation of bits and pieces, scratch pad doodles, misty recollections, or looking-glass scraps from a yellowing 1969 Rolling Stone, lying solitary on some stacks of an abandoned archive, catching dust. They did it right back then anyway. I began a solemn search for a method to this madness, that is, what is the process that one should use to write a music review?  Ed Ward is a member of the Yahoo Group that I belong to, CasaGrandeEast, and so I had the opportunity to question him about this issue. I asked Ed, one of the original music critics for Rolling Stone (but so much more these days in terms of writing-travel, food, art, history, the Berlin Connection, and lots of other stuff make up his ingredients), What process do you use to write a music review? " I will include his response in tact and let it speak for itself. "To be honest? I can`t answer that question. In fact, it doesn`t even make sense to me. I will, however, repeat something John Burks, who was managing editor at Rolling Stone when I was there, used to say, Just imagine you heard something you want to turn your friends onto. What do you tell them? " A bit over-simplified, but something to think about (Ed Ward-an email).`


I tried to take his advice, but only morsels sifted into my consciousness. I listened to the record in many different moods, and in odd environments such as the urban jungle of Sixth Street, with hollow hobos driftin` at dawn. I even scribbled some lines outdoors at UT by the LBJ Library, while college students were shooting a video (I`m still wondering why the girls were in bikinis and one cat was dressed up as a clown?), Yea, I was armed solely with my MP3 player and my trusty parker pen; I slovenly jotted down lackluster sketches in my Office Depot (you can almost feel the sterility) notebook. But something was missing; hadn`t the "big boys`, back in the day, felt those gaping black holes when their editors were begging them for copy on the most recent offering of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer? I recalled that Lester Bangs had a similar empty feeling, had a clear sense that a vacuum permeated rock music itself, that the well was now poison you see; yea, ROCK WAS DEAD! It took Punk Rock to resurrect Lester back from the departed (to cure his writer`s block) and to put a fire back under him (like he had felt with The Doors in the Sixties). When I put this together, I suddenly felt a fresh spark myself from the likes of Plant, Krauss, and Burnett, and the light bulb came on in a strange way; these were the founts of spring water that sprinkled my brow with sweetness, stardust brushed over me, and my shape altered. I was a spick-and-span man again, and hurried home and put my ailing ears right `gainst my Beovox S40 Bang & Olufsen speakers, the most perfect ear-boxes that ever were-they have served me for three decades-; eureka, mesmerizing music transported my spirits to the spheres of the Mousai! 


I ain`t no Mark Twain and I ain`t no Lester Bangs, I ain`t even no Prairie Miller, but I was shocked when I found out that I was sufferin` from a mild case of writer`s block as I banged staccato strokes on my Gateway relic of a keyboard. (Stop your cleverness people, I know you`re saying, John, you may not know it, but you have  terminal writer`s block` "). I transcend this malady (presently) by reading the greats of rock criticism (Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, and Ed Ward), hoping some of the good juju will rub off on me. Maybe if I give the appearance that I`m having some fun, the stigma or better yet the stigmata, will lift. When I read Lester he doesn`t hold back nothing`-writes whatever he feels like-and this only increases his audience. In fact, this is why we like him so much, because he`s a self-indulgent, pompous, narcissistic asshole who thinks higher of himself than a bunch of stupid rock musicians who he constantly has to plaster an obnoxious wallpaper-of-words-on for the paltry pulp of Creem and Rolling Stone. This is why he is our hero. And as I pondered, chewed on these revelations, I tossed overboard the lions share of my editing abilities; hey, this isn`t The Sound And The Fury " by William Faulkner, I thought to myself, after all! Yea, I let myself go and didn`t give it a second thought.


This album is a brontosaurus trudging through the verdure, or rather through the sand, and getting its bully way as it carves a path of destruction through the primeval rain forest of Tunes Ville. The reason that it challenges us so potently is that it has jettisoned some sacred barriers of music that would normally come through the forms of bluegrass, country, pop, mega-rock, or even ballads, and so something modish emerges. It`s not a singer-songwriter record either, and thank God for that! As soon as we spot it here as a horse-of-a-different-color, by way of miracle the Technicolor turns on so very brightly and we`re Dorothies crashin` in the Merry Olde Land of Oz with a kaplunk, after the twister unmercifully whirls us there. Robert reclaims his throne in heaven because of this serendipity, this realignment of the orbs, but probably it`s a result of so many magic tricks by the Merlin T Bone Burnett, where bluegrass and rock can morph to an au courant species of music never heard by temporal beings heretofore.


We take off with a thud on the first song Rich Woman " an R and B shuffle, a catchy vocal duet for Robert and Alison, where dollars and sex appeal (the money/honey dichotomy) go hand in glove. The percussion is up in the mix and the delay on the guitar, that is also flanged coolly in the middle eight, reminds me of the early Sun Sessions, the Mystery Train thing or The Killer`s brawlings on Whole Lotta Shakin` Goin` On ". The second track is a heartfelt Killing The Blues " penned by Rowland Salley, and is a sad poetic ode with soothing harmonies; moreover, this is a vocal capstone for Ms. Krauss. The pedal steel guitar by Gregory Leisz slowly jacks up the lyrics off the page, "bouncing over a white cloud`, guitars are stacked to the sky and blended tenderly; here blues are a viable path to optimism.


Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us " is the most melodic song of all with droning drums and banjo and fiddle interplay, and is a particularly canny showcase for Alison`s pipes. The song was written by Sam Phillips, an Ex of producer T Bone, and the B-section is one of the most beautiful I`ve ever heard, since Mary Hopkins` Those Were the Days ", written by Paul McCartney in the early Apple Record days. Polly Come Home Again " is slow and dirge-like and was penned by Gene Clark of The Byrds fame. Robert Plant provides an apropos monotone to the sad lyrics that speak of a love loss, "I felt much of the pain as it begins.` I dug up some backlog on The Byrds at this rest stop, reread Bud Scoppa`s famous piece in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll (1976, 1980) and felt Byrdsie fingerprint smudges present (when I dusted for them) throughout this spectacular oeuvre of Americana. I`m listening to Eight Miles High " at this very moment, and see the changes of the country right before my very eyes (as if I`m watching a history time-capsule film of the Sixties)!


Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On) " is the punchy pop hit from the record with a fun video, an oasis of bright yellow in a sea of blue. Through the Morning, Through the Night " is another Gene Clark song and is given a country interpretation with pedal steel guitar twangin` against overdubbed harmonies by Alison. The arrangements are minimal, the piece is understated and paced; this lament by Gene Clark is sincerely sad and seduces you into this melancholic mood, a love loss that can not easily be repaired. A refreshing digression for me was the discovery of Gene Clark`s solo project Echoes ", a dusty gem by way of grandma`s attic, a seldom heard clarion burst of flower-power from 1967 that`s getting robust rotation from yours truly! I can not play this enough, Echoes " is sensational!


I`m goin` back in gradually. Back down the river where hostility is all around, and the primitives shoot their poisonous darts at me with impunity. I still remember that Rock & Roll killed Lester Bangs! As I was watching Indiana Jones the other day, I realized that this form was dead too. Lester felt the same way when he listened to over-produced Seventies rock with synthesizers, such as ELO! But this album brings me back to America and I return gracefully to the heartland of Americana, where Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt reside, and hobos make a fire and tell stories of endurance. And the Neville Brothers are pickin` `til the break of dawn, and T Bone gets it all, and broken New Orleans is on the mend, and banjos or fiddles remind us of Seeger or Guthrie or Bobby and we are home again. I can read through The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll " as if it`s for the first time, and it`s fresh and revealing to me. And all because some musicians got together and agreed to play some songs, but they were bringing miles of experience to the table, and things came together to create a new paradigm, but all the old forms were still there, but used again in an unusual way. That is a paradox if you think on it.


With thumpy bass and jaunty rhythms behind Please Read The Letter ", gentle pleas from Mister Plant and urgent harmonies from Ms. Krauss are everywhere, since "their walls came falling down` or "the secrets and the memories we cherish in the deep`-touching lyrics and riveting fiddle lead by Ms. K. Just a few Plants moans and a partial penning from Jimmy Page, injects this with some Zeppelin-zap that squirms and gyrates loosely, clear-see right in the grooves when you look at the vinyl under a microscope. Another listening today revealed the beauty of the shimmering harmonies. These two should team up permanently! Trampled Rose " resides in an empty space of the heart, a Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan composition, it`s a bopping lament where banjo is echoing and percussion racket is thumping, traces of xylophone and strings, it sounds like you are in a tunnel. I feel safe here inside Tom Waits` world of carnies and misbegotten outcasts, but I feel mostly empty such as a homeless critic hitching rides with a sign (will write for food) on a lonesome interstate, Highway 61!


Fortune Teller ", written by Naomi Neville, conjures images of Madam Marie Laveau for me and the occult arts of New Orleans. I love the Rolling Stones earlier take on it, and this minimalist version is a clever arrangement where by the first half of the song is soft, then it breaks open with some joltin` guitar and sweaty metal bendin` by Mark Ribot- dude, this rocked my world! The middle section has only hand clappin` and treated primal female vocals that is really ingenious, just before the Bad section. Stick With Me Baby ", a pop-country song penned by Mel Tillis, is a tasty little ditty, a classy duo where the vocals are subtly blended and the electric guitars are drenched in reverb.


Nothin` " is the most distinct arrangement of all the songs on the album from the composer`s original version. The vocal lines are light, then the relief-response-part wails with fuzzy guitar and frolicking fiddle; the dynamics are astounding and put me in my place! Nothin` " was written by the dearly departed Townes Van Zandt, who fairs from these parts (Austin), and is a legend of the highest caliber. I was fortunate enough to see him a few times in the seventies and can attest to his vision as nothin` (pardon for the word) short of revelatory! You would benefit immensely by reading the lyric book as you listen to this. If you can, please dig up some of his original recordings and witness for yourself the brilliance of his feelings and ideas.


Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson " is a chug-a-lug C and W boogie-woogie shuffle that snaps and pops. Alison belts it out with gusto, but the best is the bluesy guitar with low treble with a four bar accent before each verse. Your Long Journey " is another tent revival, tear-jerking duo by the twin song-gods that sends a chill down your spine. The autoharp gives it an olde-timey feel and you feel as if you`re gliding down the Mississippi River on a riverboat with Mister Twain as your captain navigating you to New Orleans! 


I`m listening to Scarlett Johansson`s Falling Down " as I write this. It reminds me of Lester Bangs and breakthroughs that have made Rock and Roll a trippy world to dwell in. It has consumed some, though, sucked em into the abyss, "everyone knew that hotel was a goner`, Chelsea Hotel I guess, but there is an equality of songs on Raising Sand ", and the whole thing works together with persnickety like a concept album ought a. "My house was full of rings and charms and pretty birds`, and here was the conundrum staring me in the face. The reason I was sufferin` writer`s block was that I had been going back inadvertently to the Seventies into "Lester`s Bag of Malaise`, I was there again, and stuck in the muddy puddles of the Eagles, BloodRock, or Nitzinger, but I gotta tow from AAA and raced back on The Road ", by way of the perfect manuscript for counterculture (that`s on display at the HRC in Austin now), and was resuscitated otra vez (this is modeled from the opening lines of the Divine Comedy "). It was my blunder to dwell on Led Zeppelin, but Plant suggested them, and this caused me to make a wrong turn onto this Highway To Hell ". Plant transcends his old role here and is a part of this "New Art`. Just think of the title Raising Sand ", and as illusive as it is, it suggests to me the idea of creating an oasis of art out of an exceedingly dry desert of sand. I could be off base on this, but that is what it is telling me. A vibrant new paradigm emerges from a drought of locusts; this would be an escape from the Seventies and Led Zeppelin for Plant, you see! Okay, I may be trippin`, but that is what I`m seeing! And so my curse dissipated, I didn`t evaporate from the landscape such as Lord Carnarvon (or Lester for that matter) when violating the sacred tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. So please read the review that I wrote, people!  


* This piece is dedicated to the late Lester Bangs, a pioneer of rock music journalism, who had the courage to write what he really felt in his heart to be the truth