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Album reviews: Brandon Flowers, "Flamingo" and Robert Plant, "Band of Joy"

brandon flowersBrandon Flowers: A solo star is born? (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images for MTV

By Allison Stewart

Solo debuts can be perilous things, on which newly unbound frontpersons suffering from Lead Singer Syndrome leave no impulse toward grandiosity unindulged. But most Killers albums sound like that, anyway, and the band's leader, Brandon Flowers, wisely shrinks scale on his slightly-less-gaudy-than-usual solo debut, "Flamingo."

Former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant hasn't been a gaudy frontman since before Flowers was born, having spent the past 30 years embarked upon a fitful and interesting solo career whose high-water mark was the Grammy-winning 2007 Alison Krauss collaboration "Raising Sand," a lovely, sepia-toned exercise in Smithsonian rock.

In their latest solo releases, both out today, Flowers and Plant retrace familiar territory. Flowers uses his native Las Vegas as a microcosm for an America of housing foreclosures and all-you-can-eat buffets; Plant uses folk and roots covers and seasoned Nashville hands to communicate a familiar, amber-preserved vision of the American South.

Robert Plant's "Band of Joy" is a vibrant collection. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri)

Co-produced by "Joshua Tree" producer Daniel Lanois, "Flamingo" graduated from the U2 School of Sweeping Bombast, in which religious, romantic and cultural imagery fight for air. Much of the frequently fine, occasionally trying "Flamingo" is Killers lite, a slightly more acoustic-leaning disc pulling from the same grab bag of influences: newish new wave, "Born to Run"-era Springsteen. Jenny Lewis plays Stevie Nicks to Flowers's Lindsey Buckingham on the great '70s revival ballad "Hard Enough," the only track that feels vaguely adventurous, and the only one that couldn't have fit with ease onto "Sam's Town."

Everything converges in the sweeping opener "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas," a song that so perfectly encompasses all of Flowers's preoccupations - steroidal '80s synths and keyboards, metaphors, Vegas, metaphors about Vegas ("Give us your dreamers, your harlots and your sins / Las Vegas / Didn't nobody tell you the house will always win?") - it seems impossible it didn't exist before now.

Plant's original Band of Joy was a pre-Led Zeppelin blues-rock outfit that once included John Bonham; its new incarnation features a troupe of session musicians led by co-producer Buddy Miller (Krauss is absent, replaced for the occasion by Patty Griffin). "Joy" is otherwise "Raising Sand" redux, with a frequently superior selection of similar-minded roots covers.

"Raising Sand" was a lovely museum piece; "Band of Joy" feels alive. It's a rambler: rumpled and unfussy, and catholic in its tastes. The material is nominally darker, but vibrant and richer. Some of it recalls Plant's work with his former band the Honeydrippers; much of it, like the great "You Can't Buy My Love," a chugging cover of a little-known song by R&B singer Barbara Lynn, evokes '60s garage blues.

Most tracks are low-risk and high-reward: The late-period Townes Van Zandt track "Harm's Swift Way" is nicely rendered, but has anyone ever messed up a Townes Van Zandt cover? Like Flowers, Plant doesn't wander far off course, but when he does, the rewards are infinite. The best track on "Joy" is "Silver Rider," an ominous Olde Tyme creeper that explodes the boundaries between folk, back-porch country and '00s slowcore as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Recommended tracks:
Flowers: "Hard Enough," "Crossfire"
Plant: "The Only Sound That Matters," "Silver Rider"

By Allison Stewart  |  September 14, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Album reviews  | Tags: Brandon Flowers, Robert Plant  
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