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When It Takes Three People To Make A Duet


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When It Takes Three People to Make a Duet

By JON PARELESPublished: October 21, 2007LONDON

PERHAPS it was a coincidence that Robert Plant chose a Russian tearoom called Trojka, which means a threesome or triumvirate, to talk about his new duet album with Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand." Or maybe it was a subliminal reminder that the album is really a three-way collaboration by an improbable alliance: Mr. Plant, who will be forever known as the lead singer of Led Zeppelin; Ms. Krauss, whose clear voice and deft fiddle style hail from Appalachia; and the producer and guitarist T Bone Burnett, the Texan who is best known for concocting haunted, pensively anachronistic Americana. They represent three different musical spheres: Mr. Plant's worldly hard rock, Ms. Krauss's limpid update of rural traditions and Mr. Burnett's rangy Texas twang. "Raising Sand" (Rounder), all three say, is like nothing any of them could have made on their own. But Mr. Burnett saw a link between the singers: "They're two very mystical voices, and the blend of them is mystical," he said in a telephone interview from his home and studio in Los Angeles. "They both sound like they're singing from some other time. Alison sounds like she just stepped out of the Black Forest, and Robert sounds like Ozymandias," the Egyptian pharaoh.

With Mr. Burnett leading a malleable studio band, Mr. Plant and Ms. Krauss share old and recent songs, drawing on Gene Clark, the Everly Brothers, Townes Van Zandt, Allen Toussaint, Mel Tillis and Tom Waits. It's a collection of, mostly, sad songs — tales of love betrayed — floating in their own limbo. Together the collaborators triangulate a terra incognita somewhere between swamp and mountain, memories and eternity. Mr. Plant happily called it "the most amazing collision of styles."

Sipping a latte and wearing a washed-out brown T-shirt that revealed robust biceps, Mr. Plant was far more eager to talk about "Raising Sand" than about the impending Led Zeppelin reunion. That concert is scheduled for Nov. 26 at the O2 arena in London as a benefit for a educational charity supported by Ahmet Ertegun, the chairman of Atlantic Records until his death last year. "It's a one-night stand," Mr. Plant said. "I'm taking emotional condoms." Then he changed the subject.

"Raising Sand" started as Mr. Plant's project, the latest swerve in a long post-Zeppelin career that has delved into the wide-open-spaces rock of Mr. Plant's 1983 hits "Big Log" and "In the Mood"; the reimagined vintage R&B of the Honeydrippers; and the rhythms and modalities of Mali and echoes of psychedelia in his current band, Strange Sensation.

"I think that Robert has always done exactly what he wants, and I mean that in a beautiful way," Ms. Krauss said by telephone from her home in Nashville.

Mr. Plant has been a longtime fan of Ms. Krauss and her string band Union Station, which uses traditional instruments for music that's steeped in old-timey and bluegrass styles but not bound by them. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland asked Mr. Plant to perform at a 2004 tribute to the bluesman Lead Belly, he invited Ms. Krauss to sing with him. The collaboration went so well that they began to consider recording together.

"Alison and I started talking about material," Mr. Plant said. "We come from such different worlds that we only knew the top of each other's world, the cream, the stuff that comes to the surface. We didn't really know too much about the infinite myriad of influences underneath. And so it was an absolute coup that T Bone came on the scene."

Ms. Krauss, 36, had already worked with Mr. Burnett on albums including the multimillion-selling, neo-Appalachian soundtrack album for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Mr. Plant and Mr. Burnett, who were both born in 1948, are connoisseurs of older American music who share a taste for the deepest blues.

Mr. Plant came to realize, however, that he had long focused on African-American music, while he had virtually ignored the other side of the racial divide, Ms. Krauss's stomping ground and part of Mr. Burnett's down-home foundations.

"I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about American music, but I'd missed out on an entire area," Mr. Plant said. "I now know that American music is a total panorama. I was cutting it off and thinking it was redneck hell down there. But it's not."

Mr. Plant has spent decades as a lead singer, wailing across arenas as Led Zeppelin's golden-haired belter and, since then, improvising at whim as the front man for his own bands. For "Raising Sand" he would have to harmonize as well.

"I was quite nervous about the idea of finding out just how much of a one-trick pony I am," he said. "I've always been a lead singer. That's the gig, you know. Especially an English one. You translate usually black music, American music, in a particular fashion which is very English. But melody, and the structure of melody, I can be quite loose with."

Harmony singing is Ms. Krauss's element; it's at the core of bluegrass and the vocal blend she shares in Union Station. Her "stretch" for the album, she said, was riding the rhythm. "It was really an ear-opening experience," she said. "It's just a different thing, singing with drums. You have to find a different place to sit."

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