Friday, April 17, 2009

Mr Mike's High School Record Collection: Robert Plant - Now and Zen (1988)

The Zen master at work or a bad episode of Stargate SG1, either way an image to grab interest.

I've been giving this type of a post a rest because of the AOR project posts I've been doing, it seemed a little redundant and lazy. Then I thought- Hey, that's what I do best! And so it goes, looking back to 'ol '88 for the first Robert Plant disc I ever had. It was the start of the second semester of College and this dude moved in down the hall of my dorm who really liked Rock. So we got along pretty well on that level and he recommended I check out his new Robert Plant tape. I liked the first single so I had it for a week and liked it enough to get it on my own.

1. Heaven Knows

The first single is so Robert Plantish that I can never believe my eyes when I read the writing credit and don't see his name there. It has that other worldly touch that he excels at. Jimmy Page supplies the guitar solo, which was kind of funny in that Plant and Page were not getting along in the press at the time if I remember right. One of my favorite Plant songs, I've always liked the lyric "You were pumping iron when I was pumping irony." This was a song that sounded great blasting in the dorms.

2. Dance On My Own

Nothing says solo album like a song about being on your own, eh? Keyboardist Phil Johnstone was Plant's primary collaborator and so I attribute a big chunk of the sound to him. On half this disc there is almost a Simple Minds / Tears For Fears art pop atmosphere and this is one of it's strongest examples. Not a bad song though.

3. Tall Cool One

This was the song that I really liked a lot and definitely the best known track here, a lively rocker with a great hook ("lighten up baby I'm in luv wit you") that really let's Plant rock out. Page makes another guest appearance with a charged guitar solo while Johnstone's piano keeps the beat going. In a nod to the then new sampling of songs for rap that included a bit of past Zep, Plant samples a bit of Zep bits at the end of the track with a distorted voice saying "lighten up". The song was so good it was actually used (along with Plant himself) to sell soft drinks back in the day. Even a friend of mine who liked a lot of rap music back then had to admit this was a catchy song.

4. The Way I Feel

And now it is back to Tears For Fears land, this song really makes me want to shout, shout, shout it all out. The angular, shimmering guitars backed thin flat drums and echoing keyboards were all hallmarks of that era. Plant gets his other worldly groove on again while guitarist Doug Boyle finally gets to stretch out a bit. "The Way I Feel" has that spiritual traveller vibe, like you're in the desert and a mysterious person hands you a flaming playing card and other random crap happens like you're in a David Lynch movie or something. You know, that vibe.

5. Helen Of Troy

Most of his solo career Plant seemed to want to distance himself from Led Zep, on this album he seemed to edge a little closer to his famous band's sound. Just a little, not alot. "Troy" rocks a little harder though the soft instrument sound isn't going to bring back the Hammer of the Gods.

6. Billy's Revenge

Robert Plant's side project The Honeydrippers reflected an apparent love for 50's rock which made this Elvis style rocker stand out a little more. With half the songs on Now and Zen putting Plant in above-it-all shaman mode, it was cool to hear him cut loose like he does here. A little reminiscent of his cover of "Rockin At Midnight" with the Honeydrippers. Good stuff. Between this and Phil Collin's "Don't Lose My Number", Billy had a lot to do back then.

7. Ship Of Fools

My wife's favorite off this album, Plant goes into what American Idol Judge Randy Jackson would refer to as "his zone, something in his wheelhouse". Pensive yearning while feeling like a Viking, that's Plant's zone. Well, that and wailing like a Banshee. But he doesn't do that on this nice quiet tune. I couldn't find the original track but there's some guy who recorded himself playing it on You Tube and it wasn't bad. It had a sort of Johnny Cash feel to me.

8. Why

Yeah, that 80's art pop thang keeps coming back. This one reminds me a lot of The Fixx. Remember "One Thing Leads To Another"? When I saw The Fixx live in '83 they had to play before The Police and fill time to let the sun go down before Sting and crew took the stage. So they played "One Thing Leads To Another" three times in a row. I know this has nothing to do with Robert Plant, but time has not been kind to his attempts at this pop sound. "Why" is a snoozer.

9. White, Clean and Neat

To the most distinguishable beat on the CD, a beat that sounds like a car that won't start, Plant seems to look back to a more innocent time or frame of mind. Probably the most arty thing on the disc, it even has a sort of sideshow voice over in it. To be honest, back in the day I usually skipped this song so I don't have much to say about it.

10. Walking Towards Paradise

The bonus track! Back when the record industry was determined to kill off vinyl records, they would place bonus tracks on cassettes and CDs to make vinyl purchasers feel like they missed out on something. A decent cut and gotta love those Miami Vice popping percussion bits.

Robert Plant's Now and Zen is still a classy solo album with some real strong cuts even though some of the art pop bits don't work for me as much now as it did then. But hey, that's life and listening to this has been fun as I had forgotten all about "Billy's Revenge". And I don't know why but his pose on the cover reminds me of Bea Arthur. And then there's Maude!

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