For any avid follower of Robert Plant both before and after the Zeppelin years, ears will certainly prick up at the mention of Band of Joy: the title of the influential singer’s latest solo album as well as the name of one of his earliest and more experimental blues groups. Fortunately, this signpost to earlier work doesn’t point out the repetition of material, as much as it reflects a returning resonance to Plant’s vocal stride that has otherwise dwindled in recent years.
The immediate impression that you get from this album is its eclecticism: Plant has put together a patchwork quilt by accumulating songs from numerous writers and musicians. The compilation of styles is in many ways a riotous mess, but Plant effectively makes them his own, and manages to create a melodic flow that sustains itself throughout the album. The first track and single from Band of Joy, ‘Angel Dance’, is an immediate return to form in Plant that almost pays homage to some of the more mystical tracks from Led Zeppelin II & III. This is made all the more impressive by the way in which he moves past the fairly simplistic lyrics, and also by a guitar style that is more firmly grounded in rhythm than in licks or improvisation – a style that becomes a recurring theme in tracks. But again this is compromised with the use of more innovative instruments – including the mandolin and the banjo – which play a fundamental part in giving the album a tone that’s almost hypnotic.
After the opening track co-vocalist Patty Griffin contributes, but doesn’t so much make an entrance as she does shuffle in and sit quietly at the back. Unlike previous female Plant collaborators, such as Alison Kraus on the 2007 album Raising Sand, Griffin sticks to harmonics and really just lends her voice to the lead singer as a sort of vocal accessory instead of fulfilling the role of a singing duet. Nevertheless, this makes for phenomenally easy listening and stops the album from seeming like a competition between the two. But a melodic eastern tone gives way to heavy blues when you get to ‘Central Two-O-Nine’ which, as the only track written by Plant, reflects his repeatedly quoted love of long forgotten American blues. Tracks like ‘You Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘Falling In Love Again’ and ‘The Only Sound That Matters’, are disappointingly predictable even for cover songs, and seem more like filler as Plant fails to provide his own polish for the classic antique tracks. However, by the end of the album the singer brings a fresh perspective to ‘Even This Shall Pass Away’ and ‘Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down’, a 19th century poem and a 1930s gospel song respectively.
Overall, Plant proves his critics wrong by producing an album that flaunts his status as an exceptional vocalist, but an absence of much new material in Band Of Joy paints the front man as a more a renovator than an innovator.