If Robert Plant were young and hungry instead of nearly thirty-four and famous, this album might have been a real barn-burner. As it is, even though there’s nothing new going on in these grooves, the sheer formal thrill of hearing someone who knows exactly what he’s doing makes Pictures at Eleven something of an event almost in spite of its modest ambitions. Plant’s freak-of-nature voice — the definitive heavy-metal shriek — has seldom been more sympathetically showcased, even with Led Zeppelin. You still can’t make out a lot of what he’s saying, but his vocals are distinguished by a fullness and fluidity that’s richly satisfying. The production, by Plant, is artfully simple, and the band he’s put together to back him — Robbie Blunt, the fine guitarist from the Steve Gibbons Band; bassist Paul Martinez; Jezz Woodroffe on keyboards; and Phil Collins and Cozy Powell, who share drum duties — sounds like it could kill onstage.
Blunt, in particular, deserves a steady star gig. Not only is he an ace instrumentalist in the metal tradition (check out the schizo guitar lashings on the raving “Mystery Title”), but he also cowrote, mostly with Plant, the album’s eight tracks, and so presumably was responsible for such outré touches as the dense, ensemble lines toward the end of “Worse than Detroit.” One hopes that the Plant-Blunt collaboration will bear further fruit, because it’s a winner. “Burning down One Side,” the leadoff track, is a dead-on-target hit — a neck-wringing riff spiced with effortlessly atmospheric guitar leads — while the charming “Fat Lip,” a bluesy riff located at the other end of the emotional spectrum, could almost give laid-back a good name again.
Elsewhere, Plant trots out his trademark bellow for “Slow Dancer” and the aforementioned “Mystery Title,” and enlists the high, reedy tones of saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft (noted for his work on the Gerry Rafferty hit, “Baker Street”) for the slightly unfocused “Pledge Pin.” There are longueurs: “Moonlight in Samosa,” for instance, is sort of like “Stairway to Heaven” without the sonic liftoff, and “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” (“I see the sunlight in your eyeeeeeeeeee …”) is just sort of stupid. But when the good stuff on an album cuts all the other cock-rock competition in sight, only a curmudgeon would complain.