BY RON HART
If you look back on the 30+ year solo career of former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, his affiliations with the generations of artists who succeeded he and his old mates at the vanguard of British pop music have been incredibly substantial.
Saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft, who would gain primary notoriety for his featured role throughout Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut the following year, played on the song “Pledge Pin” off Plant’s 1982 solo debut Pictures at Eleven. Toni Halliday of Curve sang backing vocals on 1985’s Shaken n’ Stirred and 1987’s Now and Zen, where she was joined by the late, great Kirsty MacColl, perhaps most famous for her star turn as Shane MacGowan’s foil on The Pogues’ “Fairytale in New York”. Who could forget when Porl Thompson of The Cure was recruited for the band put together to back Plant and Jimmy Page on their reunion campaign of the mid-to-late-‘90s. Anyone who cites their two favorite double LPs to be Physical Graffiti and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me were no doubt enthralled by the idea of seeing their two guitar gods cut heads on a concert stage. Thompson would go on to record with Plant for his 2002 album Dreamland, which also featured Portishead drummer Clive Deamer, who would join Cast guitarist Skin Tyson as key members of the singer’s mid-00s band The Strange Sensation.
And it is Tyson who has joined Plant in his latest engine of creation he calls the Sensational Space Shifters, another group of UK shakers he’s been touring with for a couple of years now. But now they make their debut as a studio unit on lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, his first album since signing to the esteemed Nonesuch label. Produced by Plant himself and mixed by studio wizard Tchad Blake, the follow-up to 2010’s Buddy Miller-helmed Band of Joy moves away from the atmospheric Americana that earned him a Grammy for his 2007 collaboration with country great Allison Krauss Raising Sand and closer to the sonic adventures he was toying around with on Dreamland and 2005’s The Mighty Re-Arranger. With lullaby and…, Plant reunites with his secret weapons in programmer John Baggott and bassist Billy Fuller, who alongside the folks in Portishead and Massive Attack helped pioneer the Bristol trip-hop movement of the early 90s, picking up where they left off nearly a decade ago with these eleven new songs containing some of the first new Robert originals since Mighty Re-Arranger at least.
The ghosts of Plant’s dive into the bluegrass ocean might bookend this collection with two versions of the Appalachian standard “Little Maggie”, perhaps most famously rendered by the Stanley Brothers in the 1940s. But the way by which the singer and his Space Shifters transform the song both on the intro and the reprise, incorporating thick electronic bass, dub-like breakbeats and otherwordly vocal work from Gambian ritti great Juldeh Camara that cut through the airy mountain traditionalism like a laser. Cuts like “Rainbow” and “Somebody There” will surely please fans of Plant’s more traditional rock moves, while “Pocketful of Golden” suggests the Pictures at Eleven era reimagined by Thom Yorke. Camara turns up again on “Embrace Another Fall”, playing a two-stringed lute called the kologo as Plant extols his appreciation for the music of Wales by incorporating a section of an ancient Welsh song, “Marwnad yr Ehedydd” with assistance from folk singer Julie Murphy. But its when the 66-year-old dives into his recent obsessions with the nomadic Tuareg musicians of North Africa does lullaby truly Roar. Two of this record’s best songs–“Poor Howard” and “Up on the Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur)”–combines the soil from two forms of blues, one from the Sahara and the other from the Mississippi Delta and sifts them together atop a wholly futuristic direction that pushes the legacy of Led Zeppelin directly into the second decade of the 21st century,
In a career brimming with impressive albums working in conjunction with some of the most visionary session players in the game during his Esperanza years, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar is the all-encapsulating masterpiece we all knew Robert Plant the solo artist had in him the entire time.
DOWNLOAD: “Little Maggie,” Rainbow”