By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have spent so many years shitting on their legacy (a little Coverdale/Page anyone, or perhaps a little Honeydrippers?) that they must now live down their failures rather than live up to their history. The duo's 1994 made-for-MTV reunion smacked of last-gasp desperation; the retooling of forgotten deep cuts and a handful of new songs fooled us into thinking that Page/Plant was more about the future than the past, but how wrong we were. Walking Into Clarksdale is a record made by the guy who fronted the Firm, not the Guitar Hero who handed us Houses of the Holy from the mountaintop.
Yet it is not unreasonable for anyone to think that Page and Plant couldn't bottle a bit of that old lightning for one more go-round, especially with indie-rock fetishist Steve Albini recording and mixing. It's almost as perfect as Rick Rubin producing AC/DC--who better to revive a forgotten sound than someone who spent his whole life trying to reproduce it? But it apparently doesn't work that way at all: Walking Into Clarksdale is the sound of two men recycling legend and...no, recycling isn't even the right word for it. Perhaps rebuilding is a more apt description.
Granted, looking backward is no fun, and this isn't Zep at all--without the propulsion of the late, great John Bonham or the pop of John Paul Jones, who wasn't invited on this trip down Amnesia Lane, it never will be again. Yet you can't help but listen to Walking Into Clarksdale and hear it as nothing but a pastiche of echoes better served by what came before. The album begins with a very Zep moment, "Shining In the Light," which sounds as though it was lifted from, well, Coda. But it's just a tease, a soft version of hard rock: When the electric guitar peeks through the acoustic shroud covering the song, it's an exhilarating moment--but it's all too brief, no more than flirtation. Same with "Please Read the Letter," which begins with a jolt then stalls before it leaves the driveway.
Albini actually seems determined to turn Page and Plant into a new-age rock band, replacing passion with mood and emotion with string sections; their Mississippi blues obsession has given way to Middle Eastern meanderings, and the music now feels like a breeze instead of a punch. Walking is more frustration than failure: A song like "Most High," which is at once haunting and thrilling as a simple riff builds into a mountain of music, offers a glimpse at what might have been. And Page's guitar tones are exquisite, like a needle pricking naked flesh; if nothing else, the record sounds damned good. Too bad you can't say the same of the songs on it.