Monday, 11 April 2011

CD Review: Paper Airplane by Alison Krauss & Union Station (Rounder)

Although it’s been a lengthy seven years since the release of the last Alison Krauss & Union Station album, 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways, it can’t really be said that Krauss and her band-mates have rested on their laurels in the meantime. Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas, Ron Block and Barry Bales have all undertaken solo tours and involved themselves in other projects, while Krauss, of course, has seen her star continue to rise after collaborating with Robert Plant on a rather popular duet album in 2007. The long wait and the momentum generated by the massive success of Raising Sand in particular has made the band’s new record a highly anticipated event, and excitement about the release has been further fuelled by intimations in interviews that AKUS might be branching out in some new directions with Paper Airplane. “Everything we did separately found its way in [to the new record],” Krauss has been quoted as saying. “The more experiences we have, the wider our options are.”

Well, not exactly. In fact, Paper Airplane feels pretty much like an album that Krauss and co. could have produced at any point in the last twenty years. That’s probably reassuring news for many of the group’s fans, and it’s certainly true that the band’s bright, shiny brand of country and bluegrass, with its signature mixture of elegance and twang, remains both distinctive and appealing. But it may also explain why the album, while possessed of the usual AKUS virtues, is not, all in all, a tremendously exciting experience.

The sense that it’s business as usual for the group is confirmed by the album’s opening title track: a song by the band’s favourite go-to songwriter, Robert Lee Castleman. Intimate, reflective, its lyrics a mixture of the direct and the abstract, “Paper Airplane” is typical Castleman: a song that seems wispy and inconsequential initially but that gains resonance and depth with repeated plays. “Every silver lining always seems to have a cloud,” Krauss purrs, as the song builds slowly from a bare-bones instrumental opening to settle into an inviting rhythmic gait, with Douglas’s ever-sublime dobro work outstanding. It’s followed by a great take on Peter Rowan’s lament “Dust Bowl Children,” the first of three lead vocals for guitarist/mandolinist Tyminski that are among the album’s undisputed highlights. The intensity of the interaction between Tyminski’s keening vocal and Block’s banjo-playing is superb, and this is surely a number that will bring the house down in concert. Indeed, as much as the band function as a seamless and cohesive unit, it’s Tyminski who emerges as the star of Paper Airplane, at least vocally. There’s a drive and a dramatic verve to his delivery on Tim O’Brien’s “On the Outside Looking In” and “Bonita and Bill Butler” (a fine new track by Sidney Cox) that pulls the listener into the songs immediately.

Krauss musters this kind of force and conviction more fitfully, it must be said. Her silky lilt is at its best on the more fast-paced numbers, especially “Miles to Go,” which features some of the album’s loveliest harmonies, and “My Love Follows You Where You Go,” which she injects with genuine urgency and power. But the band’s take on one of Richard Thompson’s most exquisite songs, “Dimming of the Day,” fails to ignite as you might hope: it’s pretty but plodding and lacks real emotional heft. The jaunty, sweet rendering of “Lay My Burden Down” also misses the mark: again, Krauss’s vocal seems to skim the surface of the song here, never really connecting with the darkness of the lyrics; the result is merely bland. The moody, pensive “Lie Awake” and the delicate liberation-anthem “Sinking Stone” are decent enough, though not especially distinguished, but, happily, the band do better by Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell” which proves a beguiling closer to the record.

At a modest 11 tracks, only one of which exceeds the five minute mark, Paper Airplane certainly doesn’t risk outstaying its welcome; if anything the record feels excessively slight. Tasteful and professional, it’s a perfectly listenable collection that represents a pleasing enough addition to the AKUS catalogue. After such a long wait, however, you may find yourself wishing for something a little more surprising and substantial than what’s offered on this solid but overly familiar release.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

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