Friday, January 7, 2011

"From the Land of Ice & Snow: The Songs of Led Zeppelin": Music Review

Zep were the first group all of whose songs I’d heard; I was eight when their debut appeared, and I grew up with their music. When punk appeared, I drifted, but their albums never left my memory. Now, my teenaged sons offer their critique: “They sound like everyone else because they ripped off everyone else.” But, I recall of all people Tom Petty remarking in the unlikely space of liner notes for the Byrds box set years ago how Led Zeppelin were one of the few bands who’d contributed an original sound to rock. 

Originality improves these thirty-three tracks on this double-album, with seventeen bonus digital tracks, from Jealous Butcher Records. As with many tribute projects, this is for charity, a music-education based organization First Octave. And, as with the better tributes, this gathers recognizable names with lesser-known talents from the Pacific Northwest to rethink the melodies, tweak the vocals, and play with the arrangements of some of the most familiar of classic rock staples.

Familiarity proves a challenge, for straight delivery of “Kashmir,” “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and of course “Stairway to Heaven” would entice few to listen to this compilation. Many tribute albums fall rather than rise by including straightforward cover versions of songs that need no imitation. The work that has gone into the preparation of this project attests to the will not to repeat this trend, which on many 1990s-era compilations by indie bands redoing their influences tended to bring down the more daring interpretations by too many songs that tried to slavishly repeat the originals, to no purpose. 

Luckily, Pellet Gun makes “Rock and Roll” into a Big Black-Henry Rollins barking-mad, grimly industrial, perkily martial call to arms. This kind of invention occurs on the best contributions. Even a song for me that is weaker in its original form, such as “In the Evening,” improves by Chris Walla’s hooks that stretch it out into meditation. 

The first disc as sequenced highlights eclecticism. Bluesy female vocals start off with “Good Times, Bad Times” by Kind of Like Spitting, followed by The Clampitt Family’s downhome “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Then, the Portland Cello Project takes on “Dazed and Confused.” After this diversity, the disc settles into versions that do not diverge as drastically, but who find a cozy indie-rock attitude that in its own Northwest, folksy-coffeehouse-grungy-rambling qualities fit this grandiose, epic, sprawling music comfortably.

Disc two wanders into more trip-hop, trance-friendly, club-mix territory. I found this less intriguing, if well-sequenced, but this may reflect my tastes, which tend towards the first disc’s ambiance. Such talents as M. Ward on “Bron-Yr-Aur,” Laura Veirs & Mount Analog on “The Ocean,” The Long Winters on “In the Light,” and Rebecca Gates and the Consortium on “Four Sticks” take some of Zep’s (slightly) less played songs and open up their atmospheric possibilities. 

The press release enclosed claims this effort was six years in the making. While Led Zeppelin’s fans may not easily hear of this, on such a small label, compared to the corporate reissues and the books that continue to be issued along with worthy projects by the band’s surviving members, it deserves coverage. Revamping the music of a band nearly every rock fan has grown up with, and maybe not out of but into, makes for an entertaining way to return to the songs that even decades of repeat play on FM radio may not have ruined. For me, coming back to Zep’s music through these tributes, it reminded me of the power, range, and vistas that Bonham, Jones, Page, and Plant thundered out and tenderly tendered.(Posted in shorter form to Amazon US 12-5-10 & 2-20-11; featured at PopMatters 1-5-11.)

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