Originally published at The Lonesome Road Review, reviews of Robert Plant, Sweet Sunny South, and Honey Don’t albums.
Band of Joy
5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Not being as familiar with Robert Plant’s influences as others may have been, I was stunned with fear in early 2007 to hear whispers of his coming project with Alison Krauss. Upon hearing Raising Sand I was forced to take back all youthful, uninformed, and disparaging words spoken about Plant and his caterwauling with Led Zeppelin; still not a huge appreciator of the lead balloon, as I delved deeper into his recorded legacy, I found much to appreciate and respect in Plant’s singing.
Even with a band centered about the twin forces that are Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, one may not have anticipated that Robert Plant’s second foray into the roots-country-Americana field would be as entirely successful as Band of Joy most obviously is.
As on his previous, award-winning collaboration with Krauss, Plant surrounds himself with the finest talent and songs that money, influence, and friendship can solicit. This time out Bekka Bramlett and Patty Griffin serve as Plant’s female foils, although their contributions are less consistently present than Krauss’ were.
Vibrant and full, the instrumentation on this album swirls into dirges that are almost trance-inducing. Reworking songs from key writers — Hidalgo & Perez, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt — as well some less familiar and those whose names are lost within traditions, Plant and album co-producer Miller have created a bold, sonically challenging and sturdy interpretation of modern roots music.
“Silver Rider,” one of two Low songs included, most directly ghosts the sound of Raising Sand. Layered harmony is gently filtered through a swirl of sounds owing as much to north Africa as Memphis and Nashville. “You Can’t Buy My Love” perhaps comes closest to exploring the sounds most frequently associated with Plant pre-Raising Sand; the Barbara Lynn track is stretched out a little while being given a rock ‘n’ roll cover that should stand as one of the album’s crowning achievements.
“Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, familiar to all who embrace traditional folk music, have never likely sounded quite like they do here. Plant gives “Cindy” an erotic overtone absent on previously heard recordings.
While a thoroughly engaging album in its own right, albums like Band of Joy can lead one in new directions. Much as listening to an early Emmylou Harris album did, this one sends listeners on a search to learn more about the writers and artists covered, like Barbara Lewis, Low, and Milton Mapes, a fairly obscure outfit whose “The Only Sound that Matters” allows Plant to revisit the thrill of discovering the music that will maintain a significant presence for the rest of one’s life.
What a joyful thing it is to hear afresh songs long familiar.
Sweet Sunny South
Carried off by a Twister
3.5 stars (out of 5)
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
I love this vocation.
Every few weeks I receive in the mail an album from someone I’ve never heard of before, would never have encountered without having been given the opportunity to write about roots music. More often than not, those unfamiliar sounds become favorites, at least for a little while.
Based in the Rocky Mountain community of Paonia, Colorado, Sweet Sunny South and Honey Don’t are bands that share a common core: the production of acoustic Americana within an honest, organic context.
The husband-and-wife team of Billy Bowers (guitar, vocals, mandolin, banjo) and Shelley Gray (bass and vocals) appear to be the foundation of both outfits with Powers providing much of the original material, which the discs have in abundance.
Sweet Sunny South is a string band with an old-time focus embracing bluegrass, jugband, country, and Cajun fiddling overtones. The playing is focused and tight. Cory Obert’s fiddle is the strand that weaves together many of the tunes, not the least of which is the instrumental title track. The quartet isn’t worried about conventions as they invite guests to introduce coronet, trombone, and even sitar to select tracks.
The strongest cuts are “Mississippi,” a love song to the great muddy river and the Opry lovefest, “Ghost of Gram” which name-checks a flurry with the “pick of the litter of back-up singers, Me and Emmylou Harris, Julie Miller, Gillian, Loretta, Kasey Chambers, too” and includes “Bill Monroe playing mandolin for me!” Heck, Elvis, Willie, The Beatles, and Uncle Dave Macon drop by for this songwriter’s dream.
The entire project leaves one with a loose, positive vibe that lasts long after the listening is done, and is reminiscent of recording from both The Wilders and Chatham County Line. Nicely done.
Honey Don’t rolls a little harder than Sweet Sunny South; if Sweet Sunny South is afternoon, Honey Don’t is late evening. More country-blues influence is obvious amongst the thirteen tracks comprising Honey Don’t, but the music is every bit as delicately crafted.
The songs contributed to this collection are even stronger than those comprising Carried off by a Twister. “Sixty Years” looks back on a relationship destined to last three score “and a million more;” Ryan Drickey’s fiddle and Powers’ mandolin provide the coloring to this delicately constructed number. One could easily hear Tim O’Brien or Gillian Welch taking a run at “Ellia Jewel,” while “Who Took the Jukebox” is a lighthearted lament of what happens when the music disappears after BMI calls and ASCAP goons are sent around.
The tradition is explored with invigorating takes of “Pallet on Your Floor” and “The Cuckoo,” the first of which continues to reveal the gentle strength of Powers’ voice. Gray’s “The Cuckoo” shows that she has the chops to take the lead more frequently.
Like Carried off by a Twister, Honey Don’t is a marvelous wee album just waiting for discovery. Tastefully presented, the band embraces the music they love and deliver a charming, lively, and original interpretation of their influences.
Hope all is well with you- go listen to something good. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald