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The Lowdown:

Alison Krauss & Union Station

Barry Bales (bass), Ron Block (guitar/banjo), Jerry Douglass (dobro), Alison Krauss (vocals/fiddle/viola), Dan Tyminski (vocals/guitar/mandolin)

Based In:
Nashville, TN



Paper Airplane

Release Date:
April 12, 2011

Rounder Records

Previous Releases:
Different Strokes (1985, solo), Too Late to Cry (1987, solo), Two Highways (1989), I've Got That Old Feeling (1990, solo), Every Time You Say Goodbye (1992), I Know Who Holds Tomorrow (1994), So Long So Wrong (1997), Forget About It (1999, solo), New Favorite (2001), Lonely Runs Both Ways (2004), Raising Sand (2009, w/ Robert Plant)

Americana, traditional bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, folk

Alison Krauss & Union Station, Paper Airplane cover art

Rating: 8 out of 10



May 1, 2011


Alison Krauss & Union Station: Paper Airplane

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Alison Krauss & Union Station: (l-r) Jerry Douglass, Alison Krauss, Ron Block, Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales

Alison Krauss is more than a little bit personally responsible for the resurgence of bluegrass music in this country, having been one of the key figures in making the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack a hit. And she, along with Union Station, have been at the forefront of the bluegrass genre so long that it’s hard to believe that it’s been almost seven years since AKUS last teamed up to release an album. Along the way Krauss herself has kept busy—most notably in her 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant, Raising Sand—but a new project with the old team has been slow to take shape. It may have been a long time coming, but Paper Airplane proves the group hasn’t lost a beat in all that time.

AKUS, for the most part, plays pretty straightforward traditional bluegrass, but they sometimes stray into progressive bluegrass territory. While the musical tapestry provided by the Union Station boys is always solid, it’s Alison Krauss and her golden voice that is the star. Few singers have ever been blessed with the nuanced ability she displays in almost every song.

I first hooked onto this album thanks to a recommendation from the Greencards, a progressive bluegrass band based in Nashville that is among my favorites. Even before the album came out, they provided a link on their Facebook page to a stream of the song “Lie Awake” and said they couldn’t stop listening to it. It’s easy to see why. First of all, it is addicting; the best song on the album. Second, it features the kind of dreamscape sound that the more progressively minded Greencards tend to favor. Their lead singer, Carol Young, is one of the few female vocalists who could match Krauss’ performance, and I could see the band covering this song and making it their own. As done by AKUS, it features heavy bass and a well-defined rhythm picked out on the strings. The vocals are intricate and laced with perfectly matched harmonies. The dreamy feel comes with a hint of nightmare, making the listener feel jittery, paranoid and disjointed, as if running through dark alleyways that all look the same. This is not a bad thing, but perfectly in line with the tone of the lyrics, which are dark and frightful:

How do I lie awake now,
When I know I've got to be movin' on?
How do I lie awake now,
When nothin's right, and nothin's wrong?

“Lay My Burden Down,” a light, breezy song about suicidal depression, is another big winner. The buoyancy of the music contrasts beautifully with the rather dark nature of the lyrics, exemplified in lines like

Can't seem to find my piece of mind,
So with the earth I'll lay entwined.
Six feet underground
My feet are warm and dry.

When I get to the other side
I'll put your picture way up high
But I'm not coming back to you.
It's just too far.

As in a Shakespearean sonnet, the character’s main concern about death seems to be leaving her lover behind. She fantasizes about coming back to visit him after she’s gone, and these thoughts eventually bring her around to a different state of mind.

The other two exceptional songs on the album are sung by the group’s alternate lead, guitar and mandolin player Dan Tyminski, who is perhaps best known as George Clooney’s vocal stand-in in the aforementioned Odyssey adaptation. The first of these songs, “Dust Bowl Children,” was composed by Peter Rowan, an old-school bluegrass master most famous to the masses as the writer of New Riders of the Purple Sage songs such as "Panama Red," "Midnight Moonlight" and "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy." I have to admit, being a huge Woody Guthrie fanatic I have a soft spot in my heart for dustbowl ballads of all kinds, but this is a good one. It paints a dark, chalky picture of the past with descriptive passages such as:

AKUS: forced to wait in Wilmer McLean's back room while Generals Grant and Lee chat about the weather

Well, they said in California, there’s work of every kind.
The only work that I got out there was waiting on a welfare line.
Once I had a dollar. Once I had a dream.
Now all the work is being done by a big ol’ machine.

The second Tyminski highlight is “On the Outside Looking In.” Fast-paced with a banjo kick, it is the story of a man closed out by his lover. He’s literally locked on the outside of the door, but one gets the idea that the room he’s trying to enter is more metaphorical than physical. With a voice highly reminiscent of the great Levon Helm, he sings:

’Cause in my mind the room beyond is bathed in golden light.
I dream about you through the day and I toss and turn at night.
Sometimes it's hard to understand, when they say that pride's a sin.
Should I go or should I stay on the outside looking in?

The last song sung by Tyminski is also interesting. Written by Sydney Cox of the Cox Family, “Bonita and Bill Butler” is the story of Cox’s ancestors making the sea voyage to America, and it is written in beautiful and highly appropriate old-style language.

I guess I would never make it as an A&R man, because so often the first single selected is one of the last I would pick. This is the case with the leadoff and title track, “Paper Airplane.” It’s not a bad song by any means, but it’s the fifth or sixth best on the album. Like many others in the collection it is a breakup song, and while the lyrics by Robert Lee Castleman are well crafted, it seems a little slow and unimaginative. Still, Krauss’ perfect voice adeptly dances as it smokes quietly through the verses, then soars higher than any supersonic jet could manage on the chorus. At least for a parting-of-ways tune it has a strong protagonist, with lines such as:

People come together, people go their own way.
Love conquers few.
And I'll do whatever. I'll say what I need to say.
Just not for you.”

Also worth noting is “Sinking Stone,” a melancholic but determined leaving-you ballad in which her lover is compared to a stone drawing her underwater:

Alison & the boys hangin' out in a barn. Seems to be a popular pastime among the artists we feature.

I'm waving off the one who wouldn't let me run.
Though we tried, it's a lie I can't keep dragging on.
I'm untying the sinking stone.

The song demonstrates exceptionally nice texture on the vocal harmonics.

The album closes with a cover of Jackson Browne in the form of “The Opening Farewell.” Continuing a theme, it is yet another breakup song, this time with just a touch of a rock & roll beat. Browne’s lyrics are compelling—as they usually are—with lines that add dimension to the often flat one-sidedness of such pieces, as in:

There is a train everyday leaving either way.
There is a world, you know
And there is a way to go
And we'll soon be gone. It's just as well.
This is my opening farewell.

Paper Airplane is undoubtedly a well-crafted album full of intricately painted sonic portraits. There is not a bad song on it, although neither is there any one in particular that jumps out and grabs you and forces your attention. There are a number that are very good, though, if just under the radar of greatness. Still, in the bluegrass genre there are few better than Alison Krauss & Union Station and Paper Airplane is well worth a listen.


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