Culling the Herd: Alison Kraus (+ Union Station)

The year was around 2000.  My marriage was in the shit, although I was fervently pretending that it wasn't, and I was doing a bit of travel for work.  San Diego, Orlando, Houston, Omaha - about three overnights a month, but it seemed like a lot.  This was before everyone had an iPod, but I still carried tons of music with me - I had a crappy portable CD player and I'd stuff a 16-CD case in my carryon, plug in through the flights, and sleep off last night's drunk.

The CDs were great, always some favorites that we'll talk about eventually, but I'd get tired of them, and at some point I'd plug my headphones into the armrest for the in-flight music.  "Hey," I thought once, chuckling to myself, "maybe I'll try the bluegrass station.  Ha, ha."  I think the first song I heard was "Broadway," by Alison Krauss.  And Holy.  Shit.  I have no idea what I was expecting, but man, oh man, what a song.

It was the start of a huge left turn in my musical tastes - I immediately scarfed up the "Now That I've Found You" collection, grabbed some Nickel Creek, started trolling the bluegrass section at allmusic.com, made some unfortunate CD burns from the library that we'll visit later...Alison (we're on a first name basis, now, she and I) remains my favorite of the genre, not only because of That Voice, but also because AKUS still creates, as allmusic.com, writes, some of the "freshest bluegrass around."  I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I know that the music remains vital, interesting, and varied.  I just wish they were more prolific as a group.

Alison Krauss, "Now That I've Found You" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

So, about That Voice.  It's a remarkable instrument.  Clear, expressive, vulnerable, and it's on full view here.  On "In the Palm of Your Hand," and, most notably "I Will," it rings through some leisurely, sometimes surprising instrumentation (are those bongos on "I Will?") and cuts right to the front.  The word that always comes to my mind is piercing.

It's a compilation, though, and of solo work at that, and that shows a little bit.  while "I Will," "Broadway," "When You Say Nothing At All," and "In the Palm of Your Hand" stand among my favorite songs of all time by any artist, the record is not as cohesive as some of here AKUS records.  Those records might not have as many truly great songs, but they seem to hold together better as groups.  Weird.

Also weird - I've always loved "I Will," (well, obviously) and only just found out that it's a Lennon-McCartney, from the White Album.  And Alison absolutely blows it out of the water.  Where McCartney's is full of his tin-pan alley schmaltz, trying for emotional impact by being "small" (big surprise), Alison turns it into something truly emotional by, you know, SINGING it.  It's the difference between an average voice and a great one.

Alison Krauss + Union Station, "New Favorite" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

I haven't yet said it, but here goes...I have a Major Thing for Alison.  She's a babe, sure, but it has a lot to do with the voice.  I think it comes from the opener here - "Let Me Touch You For A While," content aside, is just a sexy song, if a bluegrass song can be considered sexy.  Again - that voice...piercing.  The song is a slow burn, unfortunately followed by Dan Tyminski (we'll talk about him when we reach the Ts of this project) and the contrived-feeling "Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn."  Things pick up from there - "Lucky One", "Choctaw Hayride", and "Crazy Faith" keep things moving, and while there isn't a true classic until the closing title track, the whole album feels like it's of a piece rather than a compilation, and kinda greater than the sum of its parts.

Alison Krauss + Union Station, "Lonely Runs Both Ways" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

"Gravity" starts things off with a bang - again, it's a slow burn, but it's also a really well-written song, full of longing and melancholy.  It's perfectly suited to her voice, and she kills it by underplaying it a little bit and letting the lyrics take care of things.  The next track, "Restless," is somewhat the opposite - she pushes things, but the band really, really shines, not only in a denser sound (including Alison's staccato violin fills) but also in backing vocals.  The song isn't much, but they kill it anyway.

The rest of the record is similar to "New Favorite," in that it's a pleasure to listen to - a nice cohesive group, some really good songs ("Crazy As Me" and "My Poor Old Heart are both very good) and a big finish, with "If I Didn't Know Any Better" and "A Living Prayer" achieving near-classic status.

Alison Krauss + Union Station, "Paper Airplane" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

"Paper Airplane" is a classic AKUS opener - just this side of a pop song, Alison front and center, radio-ready.  A terrific song.  The next song - "Dust Bowl Children" is also a classic AKUS second song - Tyminski in the lead, a retro feel, an "older" subject.  Then it's Alison again...the voice is wonderful, the band is terrific, the songs are well-chosen.  It's a good record, certainly, but...well, it just feels like their other records.  That's not a bad thing, certainly.

But it's a little disappointing - this is the first AKUS record in seven years, and while I didn't really like Alison's record with Robert Plant, I'd hoped it would push things in a slightly different direction.  It's good.  It's really good (the cover of Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" has become a favorite)...but it's not a classic.  That I can say that is a testament to how great I think this band is.