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PLANT ROOTS

Robert Plant’s post–Led Zeppelin career may be one of the most compelling musical afterlives. While his legendary band fused hard rock, blues, and folk with a variety of world-music influences as well as mythological tales (The Lord of the Rings being a huge source of inspiration for their lyrics), Plant has slowly ditched his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle over the years to focus solely on rootsy folk and blues. His most spectacular output was Raising Sand, a collaborative album with bluegrass artist Alison Krauss. Currently, this year’s worldly Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar is making a fantastic case for this being his strongest solo effort. After opening his tour at Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre this week, Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters bring Brooklyn to otherworldly heights for two nights in a row.

Sat., Sept. 27; Sun., Sept. 28, 2014

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Willie Nelson+Alison Krauss and Union Station+Jerry Douglas+Kacey Musgraves

In this intergenerational gathering of country royalty, the 81-year-old philosopher king of troubadours and the high priestess of bluegrass symbolically pass the torch to Kacey Musgraves, the newest initiate to a club whose membership requires multiple Grammys and the life lessons that earned their stripes. Nelson and Family have never appeared alongside Alison Krauss and Union Station, her band for three decades, including dobro master Jerry Douglas. Musgraves, a Dolly Parton devotee, has got a lot of living to do before she inherits that mantle. Times have changed since the red-headed stranger penned “Willingly” in 1961, but telling it like it is hasn’t.

Tue., June 10, 8 p.m., 2014

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Ashley Monroe

Although Ashley Monroe first earned her country chops working with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley in the feisty all-girl trio Pistol Annies, her debut last year proved she’s a distinctive artist on her own terms. Like a Rose channels the reedy, crystalline vocal stylings that buoyed Alison Krauss to fame, but eschews bluegrass for honky-tonk, and takes a wry, personal look at everything from unwanted pregnancy to smoking pot. Rose is a rare singer-songwriter who blends contemporary attitudes with traditional sounds seamlessly.

Mon., April 14, 7 & 9:30 p.m., 2014

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The Eerie Relief of Sam Amidon

“We’ll do an old murder ballad,” announces Sam Amidon with laconic good cheer, acknowledging our demand for an encore. It’s an early April Saturday night, and the tentative onset of spring buoys the collective heart of the respectfully silent crowd, who had regarded tonight’s opening act while sitting cross-legged on 92Y Tribeca’s concrete floor, since risen to their feet and buoyed further by the softly whimsical deadpan of Amidon himself. He cycles between acoustic guitar and dexterously plucked banjo, singing gentle and slightly eerie folk tunes of somewhat scrambled, Reality Hunger–esque origin (“They’re old songs that I found in different places—I changed them around some,” is the way he’s described an earlier record, 2007’s evocatively titled But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted) in a frail, bright, mournful voice, contrasting nicely with his occasionally loopy lyrical concerns (he plays the one about the falsehearted chicken), beyond-loopy stage banter (we’ll get to it), and taste for the odd R. Kelly cover.

Don’t worry. It’s a sweet, gorgeous, life-affirming, not-at-all-hokey R. Kelly cover. We’ll get to that, too. But let’s talk for a second about the old murder ballad.

“Wild Bill Jones” is a bluegrass staple—everyone from the Stanley Brothers to Alison Krauss has taken a hack at it. The narrator sees his true love out walking with Wild Bill Jones and shoots him, basically. (Shoots Wild Bill Jones, not the true love.) Whereas interpreters often opt for a pleasantly paradoxical peppiness about it at all, Amidon’s version is slow and funereal, ringing acoustic-guitar chords with plenty of space in between for silence, dread, regret. “So I drew a revolver from my side/And I shot at the poor boy’s soul,” he sings, in a pleasantly paradoxical warm monotone, his face blank. Another verse begins: “He rambled and he scrambled all along the ground/And he let out a dreadful moan.”

And then Amidon actually lets out a dreadful moan. More of a stabbing, high-pitched shriek, really, held for a truly disconcerting 30 seconds or so, his facial stoicism unchanged. Iiiiiieeeeewwwwwwwww. Legitimately terrifying. Some real Sunn O))) shit. Some people giggle, some people cringe. And when he runs out of breath, Amidon inhales again and continues right on with the song, nonplussed as ever.

It’s these bizarre little jolts that really get him over. Tonight, we are celebrating the release of I See the Sign, his second
record for Bedroom Community, the label run by Valgeir Sigurðsson and prominently featuring orchestral-wizard-to-the-indie-rock-stars Nico Muhly, who embellishes Amidon’s spare inclinations with frilly, elegant horn and string arrangements. As the CD booklet’s cheerfully erudite “Note to the Listener” (sample wisdom: “It would behoove you to listen to a lot more Sonny Rollins”) explains, several tracks are derived from “children’s singing-game songs” picked up by Bessie Jones in the Georgia Sea Islands, refashioned by Amidon into light frolics with the angelic-voiced Beth Orton. The mellow, lithe “Way Go, Lily” synthesizes all of this into the alarmingly lifelike specter of Nick Drake, though generally the results get to an even starker, weirder, more temporally disorienting place.

To that end, the 92Y Tribeca set begins with I See the Sign‘s title track, another respectfully scrambled traditional number, Amidon strumming his guitar forlornly alongside soft, insistent drums (a couple dudes, including opening act Thomas Bartlett, he of arch cabaret-pop purveyors Doveman, chip in on percussion, ghostly piano, burping electronics, and the like). The lyrics come in brief, surrealist snatches—”Sign in the fig tree,” “Loose horse in the valley,” “Two tall angels,” “Dark clouds arising”—Amidon attacking the first word of each phrase with an amateur’s zeal and an expert’s care. “Prodigal Son,” from 2008’s All Is Well, is another highlight: “I believe I’ll go back home,” he moans, “and acknowledge I’ve done wrong.” As the song intensifies, he takes a step back, crouches slightly, raises his hands as if trying to block out the spotlight, and holds there for a spell, a strange sort of supplicant vogue posture, a little creepy and a little endearing, just one more puzzle to work out.

And verily, as a rambling banterer, Amidon is world-class. Early on, he gets on the subject of jazz: “It’s the music where you have to have the brains. Really smart brains.” There’s a long recounting of his harried travails in a U.K. airport that ends, happily, with him on a plane, watching It’s Complicated. Even more labyrinthine is his spiel about falling asleep on his friend’s couch and dreaming that he’s asleep on his friend’s couch, except his pillow is a donkey that’ll bite his hand if he moves.

No one’s quite sure how to take any of this, but when he gets around to asking us to sing with him, we’re more than happy to oblige. He does so a couple times, actually: For “Way Go, Lily,” we chipped in the word sometimes, as in “Gotta roll with the hickory (sometimes)/Gotta roll with a shotgun (sometimes).” But the evening’s true zenith is his cover of R. Kelly’s “Relief.”

Now, R. Kelly covers are dangerous business: Too often, they’re toxically ironic, condescending, guilty-pleasure faux-slumming, attempting to parody someone already 10 steps ahead of anyone trying to mock him. Amidon, though, takes pains to let us know he’s sincere. “I thought R. Kelly had done something really amazing,” he explains. “He’d written a song that had no bearing on reality.”

“Relief,” indeed, is almost ludicrously optimistic, its chorus pairing the phrase “What a relief to know that” with somewhat dubious assertions: We are one, war is over, there’s an angel in the sky, love is still alive. To this end, as we help him sing the stirring, delicately crescendoing chorus at his insistence, Amidon offers a few quick asides:

What a relief to know that
We are one
What a relief to know that
War is over (that’s not true)
What a relief to know that
There’s an angel in the sky
(that’s debatably true)
What a relief to know that
Love is still alive

We all crack up, but we all somehow start to believe it, too. Goes without saying, of course, that we also demand an encore.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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Childsplay

This gaggle of string virtuosos unites symphony violinists, Scottish fiddle stars and a swarm of New England adepts for a euphonious wail through the Celtic canon. On their new Waiting For the Dawn, it also makes way for a Bono broadside and some Steve Earle social justice. Some say the real stars are the instruments themselves—each was hand-crafted by fiddle maker Bob Childs. But the gentle cooing of Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan has a shot at both stealing the show and making some Alison Krauss fans jump ship.

Thu., Dec. 3, 8 p.m., 2009

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Brad Paisley Is Ready to Make Nice

“I am very disappointed in Brad Paisley,” some yokel named Jack wrote in the comments section of Country Music Television’s blog in September, a couple of months after the star performed at the White House with Alison Krauss as part of an educational workshop on country music. “He’s never been true country anyway. He probably became liberal from being married to a Hollywood actress. You can tell he’s whooped and she runs the show.”

But being whooped isn’t all that bad. The truest true-country honky-tonker on Paisley’s current American Saturday Night, the best album he’s ever made, is a witty sing-along called “The Pants,” about how you might wear ’em, bucko, but whoop-dee-doo, it’s who wears the skirt that counts.

The skirt-wearer in his own house is Kimberly Williams, who Huffington Post lists as having donated $2,300 to Barack Obama’s campaign last year, and whom Paisley first fell for after seeing Father of the Bride. “Welcome to the Future (Reprise),” off Saturday Night, relates the details. The celebrities wed in 2003—the same year Paisley hit it big with a song chiding celebrities. Six years later, on “She’s Her Own Woman,” he confesses he still doesn’t know where she keeps the tarragon, or even what tarragon is. (Psst, dude: Check the spice rack! If you really wanna impress her, the August issue of Cooking Light says tarragon can be useful with seafood; if none’s on hand, substitute parsley. You catch lotsa fish, right? Go for it.)

The Williams-Paisleys now have two boys, Huck and Jasper. Saturday Night‘s “Anything Like Me” predicts that, before long, they’ll be breaking windows and skipping class just like Paisley used to. Boys will be boys, after all. (Except for those metrosexual sissies who lotion their hands nowadays, as Brad pointed out on “I’m Still a Guy” a couple years back, ’cause how the heck do they grip their tackle box? Not that he has to worry: “I don’t highlight my hair/I’ve still got a pair.” And where his better half sees a priceless French painting, he sees a drunk, naked girl. Who is probably always changing her mind, and taking way too long to get dressed, and scratching up the car.) Paisley has also talked about being proud that Obama is his sons’ first new president, and how moved he was last November 4. Which makes him the new Dixie Chicks in certain country fans’ eyes . . . but, hey, there’s always liberal rock critics!

Besides, country radio hasn’t backlashed yet, as evidenced by his latest top 10 hit, “Welcome to the Future,” the most optimistic musical statement about the State of America you’ll hear in this recessed year: Now we can play video games on our phones and make deals with the Japanese who Gramps fought back in World War II, and, wow, look how far black people have come! The touching if confusing racial-progress verse sort of implies Obama, except the “man with a dream” Paisley refers to was somebody different (and not “Martin Luther,” whom the lyrics actually name.) Weird. Still, stellar song, even with its “futuristic” ’70s synth-pomp coda—gutsy how it runs against the Nashville grain by explicitly arguing that a changing world is a good thing.

“Welcome to the Future” is clearly Saturday Night‘s centerpiece—you can tell, since there’s that reprise later, plus a hidden instrumental version. Video’s a real throat-lumper, too: kids from all around the world planning a bright tomorrow (plus a Japanese country band twanging in front of a Confederate flag, in a song that mentions cross-burning, WTF?) It’s a genuine melting pot, just like the record’s Saturday Night Live audition of a title track, which celebrates a nation fond of Brazilian boots, French kisses, Spanish moss, Greek fraternities, Canadian bacon, Mexican beer, and pizza. Even actual immigrants, if you count Great-Great-Great-Grandpa!

What’s impressive is that as Paisley reaches toward Big Statements—not to mention conceptually arranged albums increasingly exceeding an hour in length (very rare in Music City, as is his lack of a best-of disc)—the music also somehow seems to be loosening up. Only a half-decade ago, he was easy to dismiss as just another neo-trad blando in a white hat, with as little charisma as any and a less expressive singing voice than most: He got lucky with a non-mediocre number now and then, but they all do—an album every other summer since ’99, one heartfelt Jesus song per, reams of shrug-worthy high-lonesome slow-song snooze, cornpone “Kung Pao” picking-and-grinning guest-star interludes starting with 2003’s Mud on the Tires. Then he hit with two singles about drinking that were tough to ignore: the dark death-folk Krauss duet “Whiskey Lullaby” and the significantly lighter booze-narrated waltz “Alcohol,” the latter novel enough to place in 2005’s Pazz & Jop poll. His surprisingly playable 16-track 5th Gear—complete with its own crit-approved novelty hit in the outdoor-sex itch-scratcher “Ticks,” some sub–Weird Al Web-geek-baiting called “Online,” more obligatory boring ballads, and nifty studio sound-effects galore—followed in 2007.

If nothing else, you had to give it up for the fella’s guitar playing. When it comes to vintage equipment, Paisley’s as much a tech wonk as his “Online” protagonist. And by 5th Gear, his understated virtuoso fills and washes—hoedown, swamp, surf, spaghetti western, blues, Merseybeat, festering Muzak voluptuousness—had become downright encyclopedic. Since he avoids the semi-metal stomping that more and more stands as Nashville’s norm, it’s easy to miss how rock he is. But 2008’s mostly instrumental wankfest Play had its Billy Gibbons and Eddie Van Halen moments, and his catchiest recent hits aren’t far from Tom Petty. Good ol’ boys like Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith push way more buttons for me: Their politics are more threatening, their sessionmen more propulsive, their vocals more involved. By comparison, Paisley’s a big ol’ wuss. But the phrase “big ol’ wuss,” from a high-IQ rundown of his life history with water, of all things, is also one of Saturday Night‘s most grin-inducing hooks. Wusses deserve respect, too, especially funny ones with chops. I wish the Williams-Paisleys all the best.

Brad Paisley plays Madison Square Garden October 21

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Marc Ribot Needs to Rock

After releasing two critically acclaimed tributes to Cuban roots music with a band called Los Cubanos Postizos (“the Prosthetic Cubans”), downtown/experimental-guitar legend Marc Ribot had a choice to make: “I loved doing that band,” he says. “But it either had to stop being ‘Postizo,’ and I had to go to Cuba and spend 10 years really doing it, or I had to say, ‘Well, this is a project, and it did what I wanted it to do.’ ” We’re sitting across from each other at his kitchen table, having spent the first 45 minutes of our time together talking about the future of the music industry, which Ribot has observed and enriched on numerous sides: his recent work with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss; his contributions to most of Tom Waits’s major work of the last 20 years; collaborations with John Zorn, Elvis Costello, the Black Keys, the Lounge Lizards.

As Los Cubanos would suggest, Ribot’s solo projects reveal his rather schizophrenic approach to genre. He has an ability to exist effortlessly in hybridized worlds, as evinced by his latest adventure, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, apparently born out of a quasi-freakout regarding his sudden need to rock. “It was one of those blinding, post-9/11 revelations of: ‘Oh my God—I’m going to die someday, and I haven’t directly tried to do a rock band,’ ” he recalls. “And as with many of those blinding revelations, it turned out to be partly valid and partly bullshit.” He laughs.

For Ribot, “rock” is interpreted loosely, the way Deerhoof might consider the term. After toying around with different lineups under the name Mystery Trio, Ribot chose to work with bassist Shahzad Ismaily (Jolie Holland, Will Oldham, Carla Bozulich) and drummer Ches Smith (Xiu Xiu, Secret Chiefs 3), calling the new collective Ceramic Dog. Their debut, Party Intellectuals, goes heavy into electro- experimentation at times, but nestles into funk grooves at others. At the risk of labeling a guy who can’t and shouldn’t be labeled, it’s digi-punk: middle finger raised high, yet anchored in layers of rhythms and noise and brash, overt tones.

No surprise, Ribot’s versatility as a guitarist is the main draw here. Ribot is wild and loose on “Digital Handshake,” yet after a 10-minute onslaught of moog-backed fiddling, the track gives way to a dark, haunting sound during “Bateau.” Latin influences spring up on “For Malena,” yet full-on rock ‘n’ roll progressions anchor the opener, “Break On Through”—yes, the classic Doors song. “I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do a version of ‘Break On Through’ that actually breaks on through?’ ” Ribot says.

And yet, as diverse as I’m making this sound—and Intellectuals does have an air of academic rigor to it—Ribot’s existence in multiple worlds has left him with a rather simple view of his own work. It’s probably best to leave it at that, rather than trying to force some kind of deconstruction, especially since Ribot speaks warily of the E-word: “As far as it being ‘eclectic’?” he says. “Well, I prefer to worry about ‘Is it pleasurable?’ or ‘Is it good?’ I like to think it makes some kind of sense.”

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dogs play the Prospect Park Bandshell on June 19 and the Stone on June 21

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Talking with Robert Plant

Robert Plant is ebullient.

For the first time in his life—specifically, day four of the current Raising Sand tour, celebrating his wildly successful 2007 album with bluegrass beacon Alison Krauss—Plant has traced the footsteps of Daniel Boone and passed through the Cumberland Gap. The tall pine timber of the Smokey Mountains. South Central Appalachia, as it were. And such is his current ardor that he is more than willing to philosophize (at length), directly address Led Zeppelin matters (including the rumored reunion tour), and even throw in a hand job metaphor (or three).

“When I was a kid,” he says, “there was a hit record in England by Lonnie Donegan, who was a kind of a skiffle player—which I guess is a sort of a kind of combination of bluegrass and folk. And there was an old song [begins to sing], ‘Cumberland Gap/Cumberland Gap/18 miles to the Cumberland Gap,’ or whatever it was. So when I flew through from south Kentucky last night, I went, ‘Ah, so there we are.’ ” Yes. The American South—Plant revels in it. The kudzu and kitsch. The history and the mystery. And mystery in the South, like the music of the Plant/Krauss collaboration, simultaneously subsists as both sumptuous and simple.

“Once upon a time,” sayas Plant, “all we knew about Elvis was that he sang like a motherfucker. And that was all that mattered. You know, when you gas up and you go to pay inside the gas station and you hear Elvis singing ‘Surrender,’ you know that the mystery of that guy, at that time, was everything. The voice and the mystery and the not knowing. And I think the great thing about anything that you hear over the waves is, you don’t want to know too much, you know?”

In less than an hour of conversation, however, Plant whittles away at regional mystery in favor of appreciation and celebration, leaving in his wake a referential laundry list of influential musicians: Son House, Skip James, Charley Patton, Junior Kimbrough, Howlin’ Wolf, Don Gibson, Mavis Staples, Mable John, the Swan Silvertones, Charlie Rich, Johnny Horton (twice), Townes Van Zandt (twice), Elvis (more than twice), Roscoe Holcomb (more than twice), and Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys (both together and separately), among others. Throw in a couple of toss-offs toward Southern staples Church’s Fried Chicken and Cracker Barrel, and you’ve got yourself a rock ‘n’ roll roots picnic where no one goes hungry. “This country,” Robert Plant says, “needs to hear its music.”

He continues: “You know, this motel where I just pulled in to talk to you, there’s a jacket on the wall where the guy’s granddaddy who owns the place got shot by the sheriff for his moonshine thing. And it’s a little valley off the Cumberland Gap, and it’s still all there. It’s grandfathers, grandparents—it’s frontier stuff. And some of the songs that we visit, the performances, you know, it’s all about beginnings.”

The Raising Sand tour begins with a week-long, pre-Europe warm-up: two nights in Louisville followed by Knoxville, Chattanooga, New Orleans (Jazz Fest), and Birmingham. Plant has made this physical pilgrimage before. In the late ’80s, he and fellow Zep alum Jimmy Page sauntered into the Mississippi Delta and came out brandishing Walking Into Clarksdale.”I wrote the lyrics to that,'” he says of the album’s title cut, “because I was just amazed at the otherworldly feeling when you drop south of Memphis onto 61 or 69 or 49 or whatever it is [it’s 61], and you go through Tunica and Rosedale. Because I was looking for ghosts, you know. I was just trying to pick up a thread which is kind of gone.”


Now he’s looking again. In hindsight, pairing a hard-rock legend and the woman with more Grammys in her closet than any female alive might appear a safe bet. But even as Plant calls his partnership with Krauss “a revelation,” it may be because when the pair convened in her Nashville living room, neither could conceive of the actual sound.

“We both actually are discovering each other and each other’s world, which is such a bonus,” Plant says. “I just thought that with a great deal of delicate maneuvering, we might actually find a kind of common ground, and that has been achieved.”

For this, Plant credits “a six-foot, four-inch Texan psychobilly called T-Bone Burnett,” who produced. “Without him,” says Plant, “we have no idea what we would’ve done. I mean, I was looking at Don Gibson as a kind of framework—’Sea of Heartbreak’ and that sort of stuff—and she was looking at Townes Van Zandt a bit, but T-Bone was coming in with some amazing angles. And not only did he have the angles musically, but he had the people that he knew he could rely upon to create the amount of spook that exists within this project. And even more so onstage than on record now.”

Thus, with the aforementioned “psychobilly” in charge, the stage—perhaps the very concert hall itself—evokes a certain physical, atmospheric air. As though it’s 30 minutes after the daily Gulf Coast summer-afternoon thunderstorm. As if the soundtrack for a Wilco documentary suddenly segued into a slasher flick stuck in terminal anticipation.

Those blind beginnings are long gone. Raising Sand, an independent release of 13 punctiliously picked covers, garnered the pair yet another Grammy (Plant’s second and Krauss’s 21st), “Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.” And before even that first night in the Bluegrass State, the album became not only the biggest commercial success of Krauss’s career, but the bestselling non-Zeppelin Plant disc of the past quarter-century. So, of course, they decided to take that puppy for a walk.”

It’s almost like automatic pilot to think that there is a tour that goes with an album,” says Plant. “I mean, there are so many situations that I wouldn’t want to tour in now, because I may have visited certain areas of music too often to actually be excited.”

Yes, Led Heads, he’s talking to you. Though he’s willing to throw his more metallic fans a Zoso bone (or three): The Plant/Krauss set list often includes reworked versions of “Black Dog,” “When the Levee Breaks,” and “The Battle of Evermore.” “There are certain songs which will lend themselves to an absolute, stripped-down situation,” Plant says. “And the thing about my singing is, I’m really, really working on moving from style to style within the show, you know. I mean, I think it’s such a great challenge. That’s where I’m really getting off, because I’m doing so many things differently. And still being whatever I was.”

The tour,” he says, “just became something to get excited about once we had a personality. But, you know, touring for the sake of touring, for me, after all these years, is just pointless. I have to be excited.”

Yep, still looking at you, Zep fans. And just in case you need more: “You can’t just borrow the Stones’ plane,” Plant says. “It’s got to have a creative kernel of endeavor and whatever it is, otherwise it won’t work, because Zep was about that.

“I mean, if you want the quick tug,” he continues, “if you want the $5 massage or the happy ending, you know exactly how to get that. That’s a pointless exercise. For me, I just want to do stuff where at the end of the night, I can turn and look at the people I’m working with and go, ‘That was not just an achievement—it was one of the most heart-rending experiences I’ve had.’ And that’s what happened to me night before last.”

The “night before last,” Plant and Krauss (and T-Bone and company) played their second show in Louisville, which seems to have provided Plant with everything he could ask from musical roadwork.

“It was almost as if we were, you know, on laughing gas,” he says, “because it all worked and it swung like crazy and the stage volume was very, very excellent for what we were trying to do. I mean, you can hear absolutely everything. You can even hear the skin of the banjo, you know. I mean, it’s like—it’s unearthly at times. Something happened that was much more intense and much more rewarding than any of us had expected. We found that we were going into a place that none of us had been before.

“Obviously,” Robert Plant concludes, “this is just the beginning.”

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Alan Jackson’s Good Time

Alan Jackson’s latest runs 17 songs in 71 minutes, and what sounds initially like a pious daydream clocks in as a Zen sneak-fuck that mixes up countrypolitan waltzes with Chuck Berry blues and name-checks Jesus, “Kix and Dunn,” and bologna on white bread. Entirely written by the artist himself, Good Time lacks the pop savvy and uncanny nostalgia that producer Alison Krauss brought to 2006’s Like Red on a Rose. Jackson’s songs don’t seem uninflected so much as just plain skimpy, but their word-shy inertia suggests a sly detumescence that only the very successful can imagine, let alone turn to the service of their art.

“Good Time” sets the tone for a musically prolix and verbally laconic record—a five-minute rip on Berry’s “School Days” that adds Jew’s harp and vocoder to its Music Row rock ‘n’ roll, it finds Jackson singing, “I wanna have fun/It’s time for a good time,” which sounds wholesome enough. Later on, though, this past master switches to the imperative mood: “Shot of tequila, beer on tap/Sweet Southern woman, sit on my lap.” Like most of Good Time, the song evokes bygone days without saying anything very illuminating about them. Jackson seems more interested in necking on the couch with duet partner Martina McBride during “Never Loved Before,” and in convincing a woman he’s “not a stalker” before he loads her in his truck halfway through “Country Boy.”

More substantially, the death of a “sweet young woman” makes Jackson question God in “Sissy’s Song,” while “If Jesus Walked the World Today” casts Christ as a misunderstood hillbilly who drives a Chevy. “1976” mentions fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter, who “moved to D.C.” Still, Good Time is mainly about sex and television, so when Jackson sings, “Wonder Woman sure looked fine/Bionic Man was still prime-time,” you’re seeing clear through to his politics at last.

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Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand

Somewhere deep in this atmospheric collaboration between the latent Zeppelin frontman and the ambassadorial bluegrass ingénue, a feeling sneaks in that’s as ominous and captivatingly spine-tingling as the second act of an Elmore Leonard western: It’s too late to find the trail out of the canyon, the canteens are empty, and, much as Raising Sand‘s title intimates, the winds are coming up. And though Alison Krauss and Robert Plant make strange bedfellows indeed, the result is an engrossing, powerfully evocative collection.

In hindsight, the first whiff of this is the lolling Roland Salley cover, “Killing the Blues,” when the singers reach for the tune’s nostalgic roundhouse in a transcendent harmony as tight as hospital corners: “Somebody said they saw me/Swinging the world by the tail.”

But the dusky terrain they evoke doesn’t owe its richness exclusively to the puzzlingly perfect fit of the grizzled rocker and the shiny-faced Pollyanna. Producer T-Bone Burnett flaunts his typical curatorial genius with a whole set of “have we met before?” tunes by Sam Phillips, Tom Waits, and Townes Van Zandt—all perfectly tailored by session personnel and expert performances by drummer Jay Bellerose and guitarist Marc Ribot. Even when Raising Sand plays to the distinct talents of its star attractions—Krauss stepping out on the honky-tonked “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson,” Plant slithering through the sleazy Benny Spellman number “Fortune Teller”—its close collaborations, like the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” or “Stick with Me Baby,” achieve something rare: a trip to a place that’s utterly foreign, oddly familiar, and deeply gratifying.