Pictures at 11 (Swan Song, 1982)
The Principle of Moments (Es Paranza, 1983)
Volume One (EP)
[with the Honeydrippers)
(Es Paranza, 1984)
Shaken 'n' Stirred (Es Paranza, 1985)
Now and Zen (Es Paranza, 1988)
Manic Nirvana (Es Paranza, 1990)
Fate of Nations (Atlantic, 1993)
Dreamland (Universal, 2002)
Sixty Six to Timbuktu (Atlantic, 2003)
Mighty ReArranger (Sanctuary, 2005)
Nine Lives (Rhino, 2006)
With Alison Krauss Raising Sand (Rounder, 2007)
It is a credit to Robert Plant's solo career that the worst thing he's ever done post–Led Zeppelin may have been hooking back up with guitarist Jimmy Page for a nostalgia tour in the mid-Nineties. While the Page and Plant albums came closer to capturing the spirit of their old band than anyone had a right to expect, the whole endeavor was a giant step backward for Plant. Sure, Now and Zen nodded to the past with its Zeppelin quotes and crisp Page solo on "Tall Cool One"—but it was a nod and a wink, rather than a full-on embrace. Ditto Manic Nirvana's cheeky "Big Love," in which Plant hits on a stewardess with the pickup line, "I slept in the same room with Jimmy Page!" But for big chunks of his solo career, Plant has found ever-more creative ways to not sound like his old band.
Zep fans will, however, find much to feast on even on the early-Eighties albums. Pictures at 11 boasts two cavernous crushers; on "Burning Down One Side" and "Worse Than Detroit," guitarist Robbie Blunt pierces Plant's molten lava cries with peals of thunder. The Principle of Moments spawned two hits in 1983; the floating art rock of "Big Log" and the warm R&B nostalgia of "In the Mood" neatly represent Plant's diverse interests. Shaken 'n' Stirred was even more eclectic, with Plant mixing strong doses of hip-hop beats and world rhythms into tracks like "Hip to Hoo" and "Too Loud"; even the familiar-sounding rockers ("Little by Little," "Easily Lead") benefit from the judicious addition of synthesizers to the guitar-led strut. The Honeydrippers' Volume One is a one-off EP of vintage soul and R&B covers; excessive orchestrations distract from Plant's restrained interpretations, while the guest hotshots (Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Nile Rodgers) are underutilized.
Distinguished by sharp material and an equally focused band, both Now and Zen and Manic Nirvana hold up much better than most hard rock albums released in their era. Indeed, after hair metal, grunge, rap metal, and every other trend since Now and Zen, the taut snap and swagger of "Tall Cool One"—once vaunted/criticized as a throwback—make it sound fresher today than it did way back in 1988. Manic Nirvana (released a year before Nevermind) delivers on the heady promise of its title with a vengeance, confidently skipping from jumpin' boogie ("Hurting Kind [I've Got My Eyes on You]") to brutal funk metal ("Nirvana") to sardonic psychedelia ("Tie Die on the Highway") to gale-force blooze wailing ("Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night").
The much mellower Fate of Nations suffers from a muddled second half (and one of the worst album covers in rock history), but its strengths are considerable—notably the gorgeous "29 Palms" and "I Believe," Plant's moving memorial to his deceased son. His fine cover of folkie Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," meanwhile, hinted at the direction he would take years later on Dreamland. Comprised of four originals and six covers, Dreamland, like the Honeydrippers, finds Plant paying respect to his early influences—this time focusing on psychedelia and folk with strikingly fresh passes at Bob Dylan ("One More Cup of Coffee"), Tim Buckley ("Song to the Siren"), Skip Spence ("Skip's Song"), and the obscure Tim Rose, via "Morning Dew" and a menacing, seven-minute "Hey Joe" that also points to Arthur Lee and Love. In sharp contrast to those Page and Plant efforts, this look backward seems to stem from true inspiration, not the lack of it.
In 2005 Plant again teamed with his band Strange Sensation for Mighty ReArranger. This time around he returned to Led Zeppelin's North African-influenced sound, mixed with some light trip-hop. The result was a fresh and modern sounding disc—though today it's hard to listen to the politically charged "Freedom Fries" and not immediately be brought back to America soon after 9/11.
Though Plant spent much of his solo career running away from Zeppelin's legacy, he gave in to twenty-seven years of pressure in 2007 and fronted Zeppelin for their first complete show since John Bonham died in 1980. He might have even agreed to a full tour had he not scored the biggest success of his solo career with Raising Sand, a collection of blue-grass tinged duets with Alison Krauss, whom Plant met at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event. Under the eye of super-producer T-Bone Burnett, they covered relatively obscure songs by The Everly Brothers, The Byrds, Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt. Nobody was more surprised than them when it became a phenomenon, selling over a million copies in America and winning a Grammy for Album Of The Year.
In 2003, instead of putting out a traditional greatest hits disc, Plant released an excellent double-disc anthology, Sixty Six to Timbuktu. The first disc covers high points from the solo albums (although "In the Mood" is conspicuously missing); the second is a treasure trove of hit-and-miss rarities, ranging from his pre-Zep days (including two Band of Joy tracks with drummer John Bonham) to the "Kashmir"-colored "Win My Train Fare Home," recorded live at the 2003 Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu. Three years later he put out the massive Nine Lives set. Containing remastered editions of every album up to that point, it also has a smorgasbord of unreleased tracks, B-sides and interviews with Plant and solo collaborators such as Tori Amos and Phil Collins. But at nine DVDs and one CD it may be too much even for some of Plant's most hardcore fans.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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