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Page and Plant get Zepped.

By Richard C. Walls

APRIL 20, 1998:  Just as it's getting warmer and memories are being stirred on a cellular level, along comes the latest Jimmy Page & Robert Plant production, Walking into Clarksdale (Atlantic; out this Tuesday, April 21), to goad those of us susceptible to retro longings. Not that it seems they've ever been gone -- the post-Led Zeppelin machine has been very active during the past decade. But this is the first collection of all-brand-spanking-new material by the duo -- written in collaboration with the set's bassist, Charlie Jones, and drummer, Michael Lee -- to be hatched since the Zep's break-up. Given that it's essentially a quartet session and that it's been recorded and mixed by Steve Albini ("infamous alt-rock studio guru," says the promo sheet -- one pictures him sitting at the controls with a spiky whip nearby, ready to fend off back-up singers, guest-star supernumeraries, and other symptoms of middle-aged bad taste), who could be faulted for feeling something very much like high expectations?

Which, surprise, are something like met. This does sound a lot like Led Zeppelin 30 years on, which is to say very familiar and even in a few spots a little tired, but spectacularly unpretentious (in its music) and admirably free of any awkward donning of this or any other recent season's funny hat (e.g., no sampling -- unless I missed it). Page is still a piquant colorist, though less ostentatiously virtuoso than in days of yore (possibly by choice -- what would be the point?). Plant has, over the years, modulated his balls-in-a-vise croon (he enters several songs here a full octave lower than he would have 20 years ago), ringing more subtle changes on that asexual timbre that spawned a mutant generation of metal singers. And Jones and Lee don't break any strings or knock over their kit.

Plant's lyrics -- we'll assume they're Plant's for convenience' sake -- have always been pretty wretched when they weren't culled from old blues masters (hell, even then), which may seem like a quibble when you're talking about an experience that is first and foremost auditory. But sooner or later you have to pay attention to them, and if the song is a ballad, such as the new "When I Was a Child," then it tends to be sooner. Sample: "I danced upon the tree top/I drifted with the stream/When I was a child/Held you in a dream." Which isn't terrible but it's also as good as it gets and positively palatable compared to "Oh yeah/Here I am/I've been here since the world began" ("When the World Was Young") or "Light of my life/Where have you gone/Love's true flame dies/Without the warmth of your sun" ("Blue Train"). Oh well, did anyone ever really give a rat's ass about the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven"? Anyone over 12, that is?

The familiar musical ground is more happily retrod. Riffs abound (natch), though they tend to be like the modest three-note anchor of "Shining in the Light" -- pleasantly serviceable but not the kind of thing that will burn into your brain. The now mandatory Oriental soupçon is delivered on "Most High" (as in "O Lord most high") in the form of snake-charming filigree, which sounds really cool if not particularly transcendent. An orchestra appears at one point -- Albini must have nodded off -- but it jabs in a non-sweetening manner. And Page's guitar sound, in all its many manifestations, is nicely crunchy. For that old fans should be appreciative -- this could have so very easily been a slick disc.

Two songs stand out by dint of sounding like impersonations, though one can hardly imagine that this is intentional. For the first few minutes of "Burning Up," Plant does a dead-on approximation of Richard Thompson, nailing the stentorian anomie and downward turn-of-phrase. In fact the whole song sounds like a Thompson concoction (except, of course, the lyrics), complete with medieval war drums during the verse. As if this weren't inexplicable enough, there's the closer, "Sons of Freedom," which sounds like a Talking Heads song and on which Plant sounds, at times, like David Byrne. I guess this is what happens when one develops a range.

Those weird moments aside, Walking into Clarksdale is all a satisfying reverberation from the past, and it's certainly not Page & Plant's fault if nothing sticks. If they want to be purely rock this time out, which they apparently do, then they're going to be poking at a collapsed vein. It would be foolish to expect anything too solid or fresh. Besides, there's only one song here I would call actually bad and that's "Please Send Me the Letter," partly because of its annoyingly limp refrain but mainly because Plant couldn't conjure the needed illusion of humility at gunpoint -- not even under the threat of that spiky whip.

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