Robert Plant album features exquisite instrumentation, hit-or-miss vocal performance

Plant explores multiple genre influences on "Lullaby" User EggHead06 on Wikimedia Commons.

Though rock fans everywhere are still waiting for Led Zeppelin to reunite and make their dreams come true, singer Robert Plant has made it abundantly clear that he has moved on. With a solo career spanning over three decades and reaching far beyond the boundaries of the rock ‘n’ roll of his youth, Plant can best be described as a musical wanderer.

In his latest album, “lullaby and …  The Ceaseless Roar” (2014), Plant channels his wanderlust, floating along on an eclectic, folk-ridden journey through the English countryside. It’s a solid album — well-received by critics, instrumentally sophisticated and surprisingly relevant to the current slew of “indie folk” artists who have monopolized the music scene.

Unfortunately, the weakest link in Robert Plant’s latest solo album is Plant himself. His vocal performance on “lullaby” is an upsetting reminder that the legendary vocalist is getting really, really old. During certain songs, his weary voice, diminished vocal range and repetitive melodies may actually put the listener to sleep. However, it is probably unfair to disparage his efforts because of the natural effect of aging on his voice.

Luckily, he does retain the distinct timbre that carried him through all nine Zeppelin studio albums — free and airy, but with a touch of gravel. While he’s certainly not the powerhouse he was back in the day, he manages to deliver some tasteful performances on his new album reflective of his musical and personal maturity. Furthermore, his backing band is nothing short of incredible; the Sensational Shape Shifters are the driving force behind the album.

The standout track on “lullaby” is incidentally the first single released on June 23, “Rainbow.” With the ooh-ing chorus, this song is by far Plant’s best performance on the record. The tribal drums and continuous guitar riff set a powerful rhythm for the song, complementing the pretty vocal melody. Plant’s vocalizations are at their most creative, with the reverbed harmonies creating a distant backdrop. The lyrics too are quite romantic, promising that “I will bring their beauty home / The colors of my love / I will be a rainbow / Now your storm is gone / And I will bring my song to you / And I will carry on.”

The very next track, “Pocketful of Golden,” features a grooving bass line and a catchy melody on the fiddle. One can tell that Plant has lost his higher range, but the lack of variation in the chorus works well due to this additional instrumentation. Vocal harmonies over this part of the song would have made it far more interesting and intricate. Yet, the song as a whole is rather creative; the industrial backdrop is an interesting contrast to the ultra-folksy tune that permeates the rest of the song.

On the contrary, the middle of the album is an absolute lull. A sudden drop from the few heavy numbers, songs like “A Stolen Kiss” and “Somebody There” fail to keep the listener’s attention. With mundane melodies and picking patterns, these tracks blend into each other. “Poor Howard” might have been a great choice of song for blues legend Lead Belly, back when expensive equipment couldn’t capture the “real” sound of a studio session; Plant’s interpretation of it, on the other hand, seems clichéd because of a dispassionate vocal performance and the introduction of a banjo, which brings the song into the realm of a formulaic “Mumford and Sons” radio hit.

Aside from these tedious bits of the album, Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters manage to keep things interesting by bringing in influences from a variety of musical genres. There are moments that channel the gritty guitar tones of classic rock ‘n’ roll, and others that call on the ancestral rhythms of African folk music. Still others bring contemporary sounds into the mix. The album ends on a bold note with “Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)” —  a strange reprise of the opening track, “Little Maggie,” — full of dissonant chords and vocal chanting. Though “lullaby” can be a little dull at times, the overall critical reception is accurate in describing the album as pensive and evocative, ceaselessly drifting into the past while still exuding a timeless message of love and loss.


Summary

3.5 stars
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