7/13/2007

The Mighty Rearranger

ROBERT PLANT
Pictures at Eleven
[Swan Song/Rhino-1982]
The Principle of Moments [Es Paranza/Rhino-1983]
Shaken ‘N’ Stirred [Es Paranza/Rhino-1985]
Now and Zen [Es Paranza/Rhino-1988]
Manic Nirvana [Es Paranza/Rhino-1990]
Fate of Nations [Es Paranza/Rhino-1993]

Very few people are more well-known than the front man of a mega famous rock band. In fact, we recall reading somewhere that Mick Jagger just might be the most photographed person of the 20th century. Weird, huh? But there are exceptions, of course. Two that come to mind are guitar gods Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page, who arguably have had the spotlight shine in their direction a bit more prominently than David Lee Roth and Robert Plant, respectively.
And while Diamond Dave and Led Zep’s golden god shouldn’t have a problem getting a good table at a nice restaurant, Plant has actively sought to downsize his profile as former Zeppelin vocalist and accentuate the focus on his solo career, which in its 25th anniversary is now 15 years longer than his tenure in that iconic hard rock quartet.

Whether or not timed to coincide with this milestone, Rhino has released remastered versions of his Atlantic-distributed, solo output, with the pre-requisite bonus tracks. (The latter are pretty much superfluous across the board and should not influence your decision to purchase these new editions.) We’re gonna concentrate on a batch that represents his first decade or so as a solo artist. This, as it turns out, is the bulk of his recorded solo output, due to Plant not issuing any new studio recordings between 1994 and 2004. (2002’s Dreamland [Mercury/Universal] is a mostly covers album and the widely-acclaimed Sixty Six to Timbuktu [Atlantic-2003] is a career retrospective box set.) So, here we go…

Lead off track and first single “Burning Down One Side” got some solid airplay and generated genuine interest for Pictures At Eleven—not to mention this was the first solo release by Led Zeppelin’s lead singer only 2 years after the death of drummer John Bonham—which helped it reach the Top 5 in both the US and UK. But the album has little to recommend it and its Led Zep-lite sound has aged much worse than the heavily-synthesized albums that Plant would follow it with.
A year later, Plant updated the sound of Pictures with much better results. The Principle of Moments is still spotty in the songwriting department but it produced two bonafide hits: “Big Log” and the timeless “In the Mood”, the videos for which made a then-35 year old Plant an MTV darling and a genuine star on his own. (Special mention goes to the Peter Gabriel-influenced “Stranger Here…Than Over There”, one of his all-time best album cuts.)

Not wanting to rest on his laurels, Plant lunged forward and made one of the most interesting and talked about albums of the time: Shaken ‘N’ Stirred, a synth-heavy, slightly experimental, and at times, frenetic pop record that could only have been made in the ‘80s. Imagine a more free-form Ghost In The Machine-era Police fronted by Plant (hit single “Little By Little”, “Trouble Your Money”), or alternately having him hitch his wagon to The Art of Noise (“Too Loud”, “Doo Doo a Do Do”) and you’re in the ballpark. Barely remembered these days, Shaken ‘N’ Stirred is probably not Plant’s best album but it is definitely the most distinctive piece of music from his solo years.

Having gotten the experimental bug out of his system, Plant swings for the fences with Now and Zen, and gleefully sends up his Zeppelin pedigree on “Tall Cool One”, which not only boasts guitar fireworks from former band mate and songwriting partner Jimmy Page but also includes deftly-placed samples of the Zep classics “Whole Lotta Love”, “The Ocean”, “Custard Pie” and “Black Dog”, all while a chorus of “Lighten up, baby/I’m in love with you” keeps the potentially ambiguous message crystal clear. Big ‘80s mainstream production is the key to Now and Zen’s sound and the singles “Heaven Knows” and the lovely “Ship of Fools”, alongside the aforementioned “Tall Cool One” bear that distinct stamp. This is the album that made solo Plant a mega star, by the way.
Unfortunately, he chose to follow it up with the non-descript Manic Nirvana which sounds a lot like the music Billy Idol was recording around the same time. (Mr. Sneer's “Cradle of Love”, for instance.) Manic Nirvana is not a bad album, but not a terribly interesting one either.

The cannon-like drums and heavily-processed electric guitars of the previous album were toned down and complimented with acoustic guitars, violins, and keyboards the next time out. And in Fate of Nations Plant had his most personal album up to that point. Probably the only record in his solo catalog that can be labeled with the radio designation Adult Contemporary, Nations is a more relaxed and mature affair that includes the heartfelt “I Believe”, in which he addresses the death of his young son Karac some 20 years prior.

Hardcore Zeppelin fans might find more to love on both the aforementioned Dreamland and the top-notch Mighty Rearranger [Sanctuary/Es Paranza-2005], both featuring Plant’s highly impressive back up band the Strange Sensation. But the above albums are all worth a cursory listen at the very least and each and every one has something you can take from them. Hey, you might even get a bustle in your hedgerow.

1 comment:

Lito Sandoval said...

i love robert plant's shaken n stirred i remember buying it way baCK WHEN N LOVED THE MERGIN OF HIS ZEP (stupid caps lock) voice and the electronic/dance music at the time.

Manic Nirvana had great energy, but just lacked for me. There's a few things I like off it: Hurting Kind and SSS&Q.