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.