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New York Times Jul 28, 1985

by Jon Pareles

Robert Plant breaks away from Led Zeppelin once and for all on his third album, ''Shaken 'n' Stirred.'' That's not an easy move. Along with Jimmy Page's guitar, Mr. Plant's voice was a focal point of Led Zeppelin's songs, immediately recognizable in the way Mr. Plant wrenched words around the guitar lines. Beyond that, it must be tough to turn away from music that attracted one of rock's largest and most loyal audiences - as could be seen when a reunion of Led Zeppelin's surviving members galvanized the audience at Philadelphia's Live Aid concert.

Until its dissolution in 1980, when the drummer John Bonham died, Led Zeppelin had created, and continually toyed with, a blueprint for hard-rock. Its members started out in British blues bands, but together they evolved an eccentric, permanently overwrought heir to the blues - a style in which even the subtleties shrieked.

Led Zeppelin experimented continually - with funk, Middle Eastern music and multipart suites - but its legacy was lumbering big-bang rock, moans and blasts assembled with architectonic care. Songs written by Mr. Page and Mr. Plant were battles between roots and modernity in which blues phrases and British folk-style guitar figures were bolstered or crushed by blaring power chords. After Led Zeppelin's debut, its albums dependably zoomed into the top 10 upon release; one Led Zeppelin song, ''Stairway to Heaven,'' will be familiar to anyone who turned on an FM radio in the 1970's. Given Led Zeppelin's overwhelming and lasting popularity, it spawned innumerable imitators who tried to recreate the ever-escalating yowls of Mr. Page's guitar and Mr. Plant's voice.

While Mr. Page moved into simplistic hard-rock with his post-Zeppelin band, the Firm, Mr. Plant determinedly changed direction. Again he teamed up with a guitarist, Robbie Blunt, and Mr. Blunt reprised Mr. Page's chunky guitar chords for parts of Mr. Plant's first solo album, ''Pictures at Eleven.'' It turned out, however, that Mr. Blunt was far less beholden to Mr. Page's attack than to the sustains and slides of American blues and country music. Mr. Plant's second album, ''The Principle of Moments,'' was unexpectedly pastoral; songs such as ''Big Log'' floated by almost languorously. For diversion, Mr. Plant also sang on a mini-album of rock oldies, under the name the Honeydrippers.

''Shaken 'n' Stirred'' takes a new turn - into stomping but rhythmically supple funk. The new songs lean on synthesizers and drums instead of guitar, perhaps, in part, because Mr. Plant has found a full-time drummer for his band. Instead of the workaholic producer-drummer-singer-songwriter Phil Collins, who has his own career(s) to worry about, Mr. Plant has taken on Richie Hayward, formerly of Little Feat. Mr. Hayward is an inspired drummer, with his hands in New Orleans syncopation, his feet in Memphis soul and his head in the odd time-signatures of jazz-rock; by pile-driving a funk rhythm and then skipping a beat, he can make a listener feel like a trapdoor just opened.

Theoretically, the upfront keyboards and rhythm section make ''Shaken 'n' Stirred'' a more mainstream album, and two of its songs owe clear debts to pop hitmakers - to David Bowie (''Pink and Black'') and to the Cars (''Easily Lead''). But its songs are hardly geared to the formulas of commercial airplay. As with all of Mr. Plant's solo albums, atmosphere comes first, and instead of dodging and weaving around guitar lines, Mr. Plant now joyfully ricochets against the beat.

One thing Mr. Plant hasn't changed from his Led Zeppelin days is a willful disregard of lyrics (not to mention song titles unrelated to verse or chorus). Most rock bands will put sound before sense, but Led Zeppelin went to extremes. The play of textures - Mr. Plant's wildly stretched syllables versus Mr. Page's chords or blues licks or fingerpicking - defined the songs, and more often than not Mr. Page's parts were the ones on the beat, while vocals squeezed in between. Often singers who escape bands grab the spotlight, yet Mr. Plant clearly liked the status quo. He is one of the most abstract and instrumental of rock singers, taking pride in just how many ways he can warp a word.

That's good strategy, since Mr. Plant doesn't usually have much to say. Decoded after multiple listenings, most of the lyrics on ''Shaken 'n' Stirred'' are about romances breaking up; Mr. Plant is fond of the line ''You're breakin' my heart.'' While ''Too Loud'' seems to be about music and marketing, and ''Sixes and Sevens'' might be a comment on aging, Mr. Plant generally sticks to such rock staples as lust (''Doo Doo a Do Do''), loose but calculating women (''Easily Lead'') and lust (''Pink and Black'').

Yet the literary quality of Mr. Plant's songs is almost beside the point. ''Little By Little,'' his current single, sketches the aftermath of a breakup: ''Little by little I call your name/Little by little my tears flow/ Little by little everything changes.'' But in the course of four-and-a-half eerie minutes, Mr. Plant and his band sound like they're resurfacing from a bout of despair; repeating the line ''I can breathe again,'' Mr. Plant extends the final ''n'' until it turns into a hard-won ''now!''

Like many rock singers, Mr. Plant has obviously been studying soul and funk, learning how to be articulately nonverbal. And his band has come into its own, finding endless combinations of crunch and slide; in ''Doo Doo a Do Do,'' a typical funk vamp takes off because its repeating bass note glides instead of thumping. Other songs mix down-to-earth guitar riffs with futuristic, ominous synthesizers, or dovetail dependably mechanical synthesizer sequences with off-kilter rhythms.

By removing the lyrics from the center of his songs, and encouraging his band members (and co-writers) to fill every space differently, Mr. Plant conveys the sense that the songs are plastic, that anything can happen, even when he's riding a solid, danceable beat.

Mr. Plant has drawn the best possible lessons from Led Zeppelin's success. Basic rock mechanics might be good for a few hits, but quality and unpredictability will keep an audience coming back - and guessing.

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