Music Review

 

Music Review

Alison Krauss and Union Station: Lonely Runs Both Ways

Label: Rounder
Sound/Style: Rootsy yet sophisticated mix of folk, country and bluegrass.

By Steve Morley

(UMCom)—Alison Krauss has accomplished something even most mega-stars have not managed. The singer and instrumentalist has found considerable success in a playing field largely of her own design—one that relies very little on the fickle winds of popular favor.

Indeed, Krauss is enjoying the current upsurge in bluegrass, but she predated the trend (some would say she helped launch it), simply by following her personal musical instincts. She also has something that many wealthier, longer tenured artists don’t—an unusually gifted core group that surrounds her like complimentary colors on a canvas, completing Krauss’ sound in a subtle yet singularly identifiable manner.

On Lonely Runs Both Ways, Krauss and her band Union Station don’t fiddle around with the recipe used on 2001’s New Favorite. The quintet is again presented in numerous configurations, with Krauss, Ron Block and Dan Tyminski effectively tag-teaming lead vocals and collaborating on cushy and soulful group harmonies. Tyminski’s sparse, raw-boned reworking of Woody Guthrie’s "Pastures Of Plenty" is a highlight and the sole number here to be drawn from American music’s dusty archives. Over a wiry banjo, Tyminski transforms Guthrie’s folksy farmer’s lament into an Appalachian-hued ode to national loyalty with oddly prophetic sentiments: "My land I’ll defend with my life need it be/’cause my pastures of plenty must always be free." In addition to banjo player and guitarist Ron Block’s assertive vocal turn on his own "I Don’t Have To Live This Way," the songwriter offers the disc’s most moving track in the stunning devotional "A Living Prayer," featuring an inspirational performance by Krauss.

The other attraction, of course, is Union Station’s intuitive and finely tuned ensemble playing, which is as simple and pure as it is heartfelt. Collectively, the musicians are like a high-performance engine, though they rarely feel the need to goose the accelerator.

When they do, as on the careening new-grass fusion of "Unionhouse Branch," it’s evident there’s power to spare under the hood. Dobro master Jerry Douglas—the band’s latest addition, and a star-level player in his own right—logs in slightly more solo time than his equally capable comrades. It can’t be denied that his live-wire licks add a simmering spark to the disc’s performances, most of which are relatively understated.

Still, the overall effect is best when Douglas ducks the spotlight and enhances the work of his bandmates, as on the gently chugging "Restless" or the moody fadeout of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ "Wouldn’t Be So Bad," where Douglas interjects restrained phrases over Block’s mournful slide guitar.

Lovers of left-of-center and low-key will delight in the way Krauss breaks the rules that guide her commercial country cousins, not only allowing quietly introspective numbers to dominate but even launching the record with the sedate "Gravity." Throughout the disc, she thematically weaves together songs about love and loneliness but avoids the typically morose, one-dimensional territory of the lovelorn.

While the likable exuberance and hopeful innocence of her earlier work is all but gone, Krauss creates a substantial song cycle of contemporary romantic ambivalence neatly summed in the line "If you change your mind, well, that’s just fine." Comfortable isolation and familiar melancholy stand guard against fragile and damaged hearts on tracks like "Goodbye Is All We Have" and "If I Didn’t Know Any Better." The latter, co-written by Nashville artist-on-the-rise Mindy Smith, likens romance to "a beautiful illusion, a case of the confusion between love and desire."

The pull of adventure and the open road offset the longing in "Restless," and the lyrically opaque "It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way" reveals a resignation to "that ache in your chest and that worn-out old song that you play."

Krauss’ trembling, diminutive voice betrays a vulnerability that deepens these songs of tentative independence, while, conversely, the Krauss-penned "This Sad Song" (sung by Tyminski) clips along contentedly enough despite a woeful lyric.

All this adds up to an album in which joy and sorrow are blurred into irrelevant extremes that cannot exist without coexisting—this, in a phrase, is the irony of life, and on Lonely Runs Both Ways, Krauss and Union Station serve it like a brandy that is not to be guzzled, but slowly sipped and savored.

Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.

This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.



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