Bigger Beat


Abolishing narrative so only the sound mattered, contorting extinct classics into unrecognizable shapes, a whole lotta Led Zeppelin worked like techno works: cold-blooded, inexorable, addicted to experimenting with the mechanics of rhythm and dramatic buildup, anonymous in the sense that it depended on communicating less a personality than the utter precision of power. The sound has currency, too, and apparently always will; just think of all the big ’90s conceptual frauds who wish they were Led–Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, Jesus Lizard. That Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s unexpected new Geritol comeback Walking Into Clarksdale blows almost every album those outfits have made out of the water only proves punk was wrong; anybody can’t do it.

Sarah Vowell wrote a funny slam of the album in Spin, complaining about how the lyrics demean women, but as far as I’m concerned she can just go bustle her hedgerow, because since when was Zeppelin ever about words? The new title cut is this enormously whirling dervish: Page ripping off himself (why not, everybody else does) then convoluting into chaos and burying Plant’s talking-Beck-blues allegorical bullshit about 12 white horses out on Highway 49 standing in the shadows of a burned-down hotel. And my favorite track is the closer, “Sons of Freedom,” where Plant stutters tongue-twistedly about a “n-n-n-nice girl” and addresses the meaninglessness issue–“I talk in circles/I make no sense/I get so nervous/I wet my pants”–well okay, maybe not exactly. But he sounds totally wound up and obsessive and unbalanced, and he goes into towering Viking “Immigrant Song” wails and so does the music, pure pulverizing motion.

Like Bob Dylan, Bob Plant seems to have misplaced his underappreciated sense of humor, but unlike Dylan he sounds like he can still get it up. Way up: “Most High,” the single is called, and Bobby literally ascends most high, though what with its talk of olive trees on fire the highness might be supposed to be Allah, or drugs. Its Middle Eastern snake-charm and vowel-undulating and falsetto-bending make everything else on AOR playlists this spring sound tiny. Plant’s vocal acrobatics on this CD are all over the map, a map with the topology of the cover of Houses of the Holy and hidden windows like the cover of Physical Graffiti. But as always, he’s most transcendent in his orgasmic and ecstatic high register.

Walking Into Clarksdale‘s “engineer” is Steve Albini, who for a change doesn’t stupidly obscure singing under guitar crap. But guitar crap is still why he was the right man for the job–there’s times I swear he must’ve kept sending Page back to square one until he came up with something big, black, and bulldozing. Tracks like “Please Read the Letter” (sort of a more polite version of “Write Me Back Fucker” by Sleater-Kinney) are so packed with disconnected mania that I wonder if Stevie just pieced hotshit highlights together in the studio: hardstrummed Celtic frills, Byrds-of-prey gangliations of bloody beauty, miraculous passages feeling like trapdoors from Mesopotamia to the Mississippi.

Mostly P&P are reminding us they know how to use space. “When the World Was Young” (reiterated thematically later in “When I Was a Child”–Robert’s clearly lamenting the lost lemonade of youth) starts with this chimey echo that reminds my (soon-to-be-ex-) wife of “Expressway to Yr Skull” by Sonic Youth, which once reminded me of “Going to California,” which Pearl Jam a couple months ago rewrote as “Given To Fly” (easily their best radio hit ever, and still just a barren bellow next to the original). “Upon a Golden Horse” snorts equestrianly then widens out into this stormy vacuum of Ennio Morricone moodiness, and the ambient opening of the oddly unlocomotive “Blue Train” (to Clarksdale and they’ll meet you at the station?) partakes somewhat of the repetitive, hangover-remedy feel of the Chemical Brothers with Beth Orton.

Tempos could be faster; only “Sons of Freedom” really rampages. And I wish the new music had more dance to it–bassist Charlie Jones entirely avoids the disco and Latin leanings that his soul-and-salsa fan lastnamesake John Paul had initiated way back in “Trampled Under Foot” and “Fool in the Rain.” So while Clarksdale does seem both less clinical and less cynical than Plant’s intermittently intriguing ’80s solo work and less blues-thudding than ponderous ’80s Page plod like the Firm and Outrider, the later Zep LPs (especially the eternally underrated In Through the Out Door) were still lighthearted and unburdensome in a way this disc isn’t. Far from Page and Plant at their most tuneful, the mantras and sonic extravaganzas here don’t even much have beginnings and endings. But then again, neither do the Chemical Brothers, and Big Beats don’t get any bigger than Bonham’s, whose boom Michael Lee fabricates hugely throughout. It might not quite carry you to Valhalla, but big whoop–most any groove on Walking Into Clarksdale could get you through the next six interstate mile-markers if you’re looking to the west as summer evenings grow.