Robert Plant, “Carry Fire” (Nonesuch/Warner Bros.)
One of the weirder chapters in rock history happened in 2014. That’s when Led Zeppelin won a Grammy for best rock album for a seven-year-old concert recording while the band’s former frontman Robert Plant somehow didn’t even scrounge up a nomination for easily one of the best albums of the year.
Three years later, let’s hope the future doesn’t again get overshadowed by the past.
The 11-track “Carry Fire” finds Plant backed by his talented band, the Sensational Space Shifters, and thrillingly exploring the same fascinating terrain of rootsy folk and achy blues.
If 2014’s “lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar” seemed very personal and soaked in heartbreak, the new album has Plant in a somewhat happier place and looking to the horizon, perhaps becoming more political.
“New World” is a bitter look at the way we treat immigrants, “Carving Up the World Again” mocks border walls and “Bones of a Saint” coolly dispatches religious fervor. He pushes deeper than ever into Middle Eastern sounds with the outstanding oud-filled title track, an exhilarating multicultural triumph.
Of course, no one does love like Plant — mature, earthy and world-weary. Here, he seems to have found a new spark — “Lay down in sweet surrender/ Your love so warm and tender,” he sings in the opening song. On another, the standout “A Way With Words,” he sings: “Coming from the cold/ Reaching for your sweet embrace.”
As with his last album, there are coy nods to his past, like the title of the first song, the strummy anthem “May Queen,” which Zeppelin fans will instantly recognize from “Stairway to Heaven.” He sings about “dancing days” here, which is also the title of a song on 1973’s “Houses of the Holy.”
There’s an intimacy to Plant’s weathered voice throughout, so intimate in fact that it sometimes feels as if we’re intruding on a very personal moment. He’s also using more modern technology to create an album that seamlessly mixes cello, bendir and Moog synthesizer, backed by the accomplished musicians John Baggott, Justin Adams, Billy Fuller, Dave Smith and Liam “Skin” Tyson.
Beck, “Colors” (Capitol Records)
Singer-songwriter Beck has never been very good at hiding how he’s feeling. If you made it through the defeated melancholy of “Sea Change” without wanting to hurl yourself off a cliff, congrats. But the thing is, Beck doesn’t hide when he’s happy either.
A very different Beck comes across on “Colors,” a hook-driven bubbly CD he made with in-demand producer Greg Kurstin, best known for his work with Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Sia and the Foo Fighters. Beck might be known more for his finely tuned downer rock, but he’s mostly angst-free here. One song is even titled “I’m So Free.” (The new tune “Fix Me” — a perfect title for the old Beck — turns out not to be mournful at all.)
The 10-track “Colors” is Beck’s most accessible, radio-friendly offering in years but, this being Beck, it’s brilliantly layered, with plenty of interesting things happening under the hood. There’s pan flute, handclaps and glockenspiel on it, for goodness’ sake. (AP)
Beck hasn’t been this overtly poppy since “Midnite Vultures” in 1999 but that was harsh-sounding and more than a little nutty in comparison. “Colors” is smooth and warm and light. In fact, there are plenty of allusions to Beck emerging from darkness. “Found our way through the lost years/ Now the day brings it all here,” he sings in the title song.
We got a good hint this direction was coming in 2015 when Beck released “Dreams” from the new album. It’s a strummy, drum-driven dance song that’s all about putting your arms in the air but belied by lyrics about “trouble on the way.”
Other songs tumble from a happy place. The super “Up All Night” is a sweet song about older lovers — or maybe happy dads taking care of babies — in the quiet hours when “night is crawling up to the day.” ‘’No Distraction” feels reminiscent of The Fixx and “Seventh Heaven” sounds like something from The Stone Roses. “Square One” finds Beck going in and out of his falsetto beautifully to create a perfect slice of shimmering pop.
Perhaps the most unconventional song is “Wow,” a trippy, cowboy-dance hip-hop tune that swipes the theme from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and adds it to lyrics seemingly inspired by some weed. (“Wow/ It’s like right now/ It’s like wow.”) It should not make sense. But this is Beck, and he somehow makes it so. Actually, that goes for the whole CD, too. (AP)
By Mark Kennedy