Robert Plant has never been afraid to depart from the well-beaten path of hook-driven hard rock that he all but paved over during his early years as Zep’s in-house Jesus. Whether embracing his inner Elvis on 1984’s The Honeydrippers, Vol. 1 or retreating to his folk roots on 1993’s Fate of Nations, Plant has rarely chosen to coast on his reputation as the forefather of heavy metal. So it’s no surprise that his seventh solo release, Dreamland, reflects a mixed bag of styles, from reggae and blues to the Eastern-flavored world music that so heavily influenced his 1994 collaboration with Jimmy Page, No Quarter. For all his reluctance to fall back on a formula, though, Plant consistently stays within earshot of his old band’s trademark sound — a subtle paradox that is nevertheless obvious on his latest effort.

A collection of rough-edged originals and ambitious covers, Dreamland boasts some of Plant’s finest moments since the 1980 dissolution of Zeppelin. His rendition of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” with its circular melodies, luscious strings and impassioned vocals, recalls the delicate glory of Houses of the Holy’s “Rain Song,” while fans of Zep’s bludgeoning riffs should be plenty satisfied with the sonic assaults of blues compositions such as “Funny in My Mind” and “Win My Train Fare Home.” Less successful is Plant’s seven-minute take on the Hendrix classic “Hey Joe.” In fact, the real highlight of the album is “Skip’s Song,” a previously unreleased gem written by Moby Grape’s Skip Spence. Combining the rhythmic punch of Zeppelin II’s “Ramble On” with a robust melody and harmonies that sound like vintage Who, “Skip’s Song” offers compelling proof that the Tall Cool One’s tastes remain nearly as impeccable as his back catalog.

E-mail Rossiter Drake at [email protected].

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