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Five for Friday: Robert Plant Vocal Performances

Led Zeppelin remains an anomaly. In a culture that loves big-ticket festivals and anniversaries, Led Zeppelin has avoided the temptation to reunite. And the band's centerpiece, Robert Plant, has largely resisted the urge to look back. That continues this week with the release of his new album Carry Fire. Those who have followed Plant's dips into Americana will find the new set based more in rock n' roll, but there's no nostalgia here. This is a work from an artist who continues to challenge himself, writing songs that reflect his place in life. But that voice! Plant remains one of the most recognizable singers in history, and that doesn't change with Carry Fire. Here, we look at some of our favorite Plant vocal performances. And like the artist's music, this list isn't all about reminiscing of bygone days.

"Going to California"
No doubt Plant can command attention. His high-pitched vocal acrobatics are hair-raising when fully lit. Another few octaves, and who knows – maybe all the neighborhood hounds would come running to his doorstep. But the man can also turn it down. This 1971 ballad, taken from Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album, remains a revelation, showing not just the vulnerability in Plant's voice but also the band's grasp of the less-is-more approach. Equal parts heartache and optimism, "Going to California" unfolds like an IV shot of hope direct to the veins. Backed by delicately hypnotic acoustics, Plant varies his pace throughout the patient number. When he sounds hurried, he never completely gives in, reigning in his voice just as it's about to crack. By the time all is said and done, "Going to California" comes across as a lesson in keeping one's composure – even if it's a futile search for a woman who's "never, never, never been born."

"Polly Come Home"
This stark, striking tune begins with a somber, booming bass drum. A melancholic guitar creaks between the poundings, its sound akin to a rusty hinge on a slowly swaying door. When Plant's voice arrives, it is the opposite of familiarity, especially for those in tune with the artist's back catalog. While Plant has gone soft before, he's never been as vulnerable as he is on "Polly Come Home," a 2007 collaboration with country/bluegrass star Alison Krauss. Taken from the Grammy-winning Raising Sand, "Polly Come Home" surrounds itself in mystery and seems to allude to a long-lost love. But whereas parts of Raising Sand play up the contrast between the rocker and regal American singer, "Polly Come Home" emphasizes how one can find harmony in unlikely places. Here, both singers flirt with a whisper, each voice occasionally fading to the background and then coming to the fore. It's a tale of two people in sync, but currently out of it.

"Black Dog"
There's plenty about "Black Dog" that makes it one of the most instantly identifiable Led Zeppelin songs. For starters, the John Paul Jones riff, which essentially winds up and down until it peels off in the chorus and settles into a strut in the bridge. John Bonham's drums, too, remain unmistakable, and bring cymbal-heavy rock n' roll furor to the band's take on the blues. Yet "Black Dog" really belongs to Plant, as his yell heralds the song's arrival like a school bell awakening a town. While the 1971 song largely presents Plant at his most ferocious, the stop-and-go arrangement adds more bite, as if Plant is toying with the subject. When ricocheting between lust and pain, Plant's raspy yelp feels most lecherous. When he seems to calm down during the largely wordless chorus, as if fully surrendering control to his emotions, the listener can't relax, fearing another blow might be just around the corner.

"The May Queen"
At 69 years old, Plant continues his push his voice – and songwriting. "The May Queen," the lead single from Carry Fire, with its references to a dimming light and laying down, could be interpreted as a mediation on one nearing the end of days. The song, however, goes after something larger. Plant grapples with the never-ending head games that accompany romance – namely, the difficulty in allowing oneself to be emotionally exposed. "Out here, the fire still burning," Plant sings, indulging the sense of strong-headed determination in his voice. The primary trademarks are here – mainly, the upper-register scratch – but things feel more lived in. One, for instance, can hear a moment of exertion before Plant sings the first line. The arrangement buoys his resolve, be it the excited albeit warm rhythms or assertive violin that pierces the engaging acoustic guitars.

"Bones of Saints"
Another new song? Blasphemy, some Led Zeppelin diehards may say. But this isn't a dismissal of Plant's bolder earlier work, be it the unbridled passion of "Whole Lotta Love" or playful unpredictability of "D'yer Mak'er." Instead, consider it an acknowledgement of the refinement that comes with age. In the youth-obsessed medium of rock n' roll, Plant on "Bones of Saints" shows he's still got "it," and "it" being his ability to use his vocal range like a yo-yo while also surrendering to moments of improvisation. Musically, "Bones of Saints" nods to a few Plant/Zeppelin blues hallmarks. Plant, meanwhile, is all over – a steady, aged storyteller in the verses, but then switching to a wailer in the chorus. The bridge exposes Plant as comforter. It all leads to the song's final moments, when Plant lets his voice off the leash and shows that, as mature as we may get, we'll always maintain a bit of our feral youth.

Photo credit: Mads Perch

October 13, 2017

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