Steve Sauer has graciously invited me to post my review here as a guest contributor. I thank him for the opportunity to share my thoughts on Robert Plant's new album, Band of Joy. Steve has done a fantastic job of providing background information and analysis of the original songs that Plant covers on this disc, so I don't feel too badly about not mentioning all of the original artists in my review.
Band of Joy begins with "Angel Dance" - a strong opener with a great groove. Unfortunately the ringing sound (tambourine, I'm guessing) that pops up regularly every so often is very annoying to me - kind of like I suppose a dog whistle would be, if I were a dog... If I could only remove that, it would not just be a good track, but a great one.
"House of Cards" could be improved by making the production a little less muddy. I understand that it was a choice, but to me it just sounds like I'm listening to a static-y radio broadcast. Around 1:44 into the song, the static recedes for a bit for the "and the birds are wheelin'..." section and it sounds fantastic. I love the "and cracked and it's shaking" line - it's delivered perfectly - but then the static aspect returns around 2:15. This song works better live from the recordings I've heard.
I enjoy "Central Two-O-Nine". It's a fun little foot-stomper that would fit in well with a latter-day Zep acoustic set that might also include "Poor Tom".
"Silver Rider" is a dystopian epic - almost up there with "Darkness Darkness" as an enduring favorite cover by Plant. I bought Low's The Great Destroyer a couple months ago to hear this track and "Monkey" in advance of Band of Joy's release. The original "Silver Rider" is a little too achingly restrained for my taste, but Plant's version lets loose just the right amount. A standout track. Buddy Miller plays excellent, haunting guitar, and Patty Griffin's vocal accompaniment might be better here than anything else she does on the album.
Byron House's bass on "You Can't Buy My Love" is satisfyingly dirty and makes the song work much better than it otherwise would. The vocals are fine - there's a trademark Robert moment around 1:50. Not a substantial song, but fun. It probably should not have followed "Silver Rider" on the album and might have been better off appearing later on this disc.
"Falling in Love Again" is a very nice vocal showcase for Plant at this point in his career - his voice sounds rich and smooth. The steel guitar around 1:50 is a little too country/twangy for my liking; a short, sharp electric guitar solo might have improved it, but that's just me.
Unfortunately, "The Only Sound that Matters" begins with more of that extra-twangy steel guitar. The vocals are pushed forward a bit more in this song and sometimes the articulation isn't where it should be - the words sound a little 'thick'. This gets better around 2:15, but then there's more of the twangy guitar.
"Monkey" is perfectly ominous. The rumbling bass and drums, the distorted guitar, the perfectly matched dual vocals... another Low cover, and another standout track. A very good original that is taken to a higher level by Robert and his band. The only thing that detracts is more of that high-pitched ringing that was heard in "Angel Dance". Thankfully there's not quite as much and it's not as noticeable.
"Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday" features some pleasant banjo picking. The vocals are understated, whispered until around 1:40 when they become more forceful. Not my favorite track, but it picks up nicely in the last minute or so.
Plant, Buddy Miller, and Marco Giovino team up to make "Harm's Swift Way" one of the better tracks on the album. There is a confidence and strength to this song that contrasts with the plaintive and vulnerable nature of Plant's singing elsewhere on the disc.
"Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" could have been a Fate of Nations B-side with Rainer Ptacek like "Dark Moon". Spooky...
I've been struggling to figure out what past Plant album that "Even This Shall Pass Away" sounds like it belongs on, but it's somewhere between Shaken 'n Stirred and the previously unreleased 1987 Now and Zen-era track "Upside Down" that appeared on Sixty-Six To Timbuktu. Either way, it's kind of funky and a little odd, but it works as the final track of the CD, probably about as well as "Brother Ray" did on Mighty Rearranger.
A pretty good album overall - I give it a 7 out of 10 and place it somewhere in the middle in terms of Robert's post-Zeppelin work, below Pictures at Eleven (which has grown on me and really benefited from the remastering job for Nine Lives), Fate of Nations, and Mighty Rearranger, which are all big favorites.
I hope that Robert gets inspired to do some more writing of his own for his next album. Mighty Rearranger was very strong lyrically and musically following Dreamland, which was almost entirely a covers album, so perhaps history will repeat itself and we'll get a strong new collection of Plant originals in a couple years.
Review by Wyatt Brake