An Album for the Weekend: Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss & Union Station (2011)

[Every Friday in this space, I’ll present an album that’s worth an hour of your listening time during the coming weekend. Usually it will be from my collection, but not always. Genres will be all over the map; I listen to a lot of stuff. Nominations of albums are welcome; send titles you want to read about to or comment on the blog. If I choose your album, you’ll get credit for the suggestion. –AB]

A friend who grew up in Kentucky shakes his head and declares that modern country music is “just pop music with a hat.” It’s hard to disagree. As fun and catchy as Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw may be, they and many of their colleagues are no more country than the New York City Subway. Press enough buttons on your radio, and you hear a great deal of musical similarity between mainstream pop and mainstream Nashville.PaperAirplane

So when something as authentic as Paper Airplane by Alison Krauss and Union Station comes along, you jump down off the tractor and take notice. Here are real bluegrass sounds: banjo, subtle guitar, tasteful mandolin — played in a way that goes right back through Flatt & Scruggs to the common-man music that used to permeate the rural United States. Real country, that is.

Krauss’ chops as a serious musician — singer and fiddler — are beyond doubt, as she proved long before her crossover success with Raising Sand, which she recorded with former Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant. There are some who find her voice a little thin, such as on the 1995 single “When You Say Nothing At All.” But balanced by such a textured band as Union Station, Krauss’ voice not only fits, it flows like a mountain stream into some very pleasant places. Through it, she lays out some hard truths, the kind that accompany sleepless nights, on “Lay My Burden Down,” “Sinking Stone,” and other tracks.

Krauss also knows how to be a bandmate. Most of the lead vocals on these songs of love, loss and longing are by her. But some serious Americana comes from earthy singing of guitar-mandolin player Dan Tyminski (he’s from Vermont!), who confidently narrates the Depression-era lament “Dust Bowl Children.” His riverboat story “Bonita and Bill Butler” is the closest we’ll ever get to accompanying Mark Twain in the pilot house.

The band produced its own work here, and the recording is flawless. Book some headphone time, close your eyes, and let your heart pick out every note. Not one is wasted.♦

©2013 Adam Barr

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