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Alison Krauss and Union Station soar with “Paper Airplane”

April 15, 2011

“Paper Airplane,” the opening and title track of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s latest album encapsulates Krauss’ shortcomings and her genius.

Musically, the song is barely distinguishable from “Doesn’t Have to Be This Way” off the band’s 2004 outing “Lonely Runs Both Ways.” Lyrically, the song relies on twisting cliches with results that are alternately painful (“every silver lining always seems to have a cloud”) or more-or-less poignant (“love conquers few”). Yet, even when she’s recycling material, Krauss manages to squeeze every aching ounce of melancholy out, making “Paper Airplane” moving in spite of itself.

This ability to twist even mediocre material to her will is particularly important for Krauss. She tends to favor lovelorn ballads, which offer a relatively narrow range musically and thematically.

“Paper Airplane” is no exception. Throughout the album, Krauss leans heavily on ballads about heartache and loss with varying degrees of success. Each song sounds beautiful, even ifsome fall a little flat.

On “Dimming of the Day” Krauss’ plaintive vocals hover just above a whisper. But with lines like “I’m drowning in a river of my tears,” the song, crosses from the melancholy to the maudlin.

Other songs fare better.

“Lay My Burden Down” is a surprisingly hopeful and happy meditation on death and love. Over a gently uplifting background of guitar, banjo, and mandolin, Krauss croons her way to heaven and back.

“My Love Follows You Where You Go” marks one of Krauss’ few forays away from the ballad, if not away from the theme of lost love. A mid-tempo banjo and guitar number, the song shines as one of the album’s brightest moments.

Krauss’ tendency toward monotony is given some balance by bandmate Dan Tyminski. Tyminski, who sang for George Clooney in “O, Brother Where Art Thou?” employs a lively bluegrass style on his three offerings.

Tyminski’s “Dust Bowl Children” is the most down-homey tune on the entire album and Tyminski’s strongest track. Over a hard-driving banjo roll, Tyminski drawls out an account of Great Depression life that sounds like it could have been recorded decades ago.

On “Miles to Go,” Krauss and company push their limits gently, with a mildly unusual chorus. “Sinking Stone,” marks the band’s one real nod to commercial country, sounding akin to Sugarland. The album closes with a sweet and gentle cover of Jackson Brown’s “Opening Farewell.”

On “Paper Airplane,” Alison Krauss and Union Station stay within comfortable and familiar boundaries. Bordering, as always, on the wasteland that is easy listening, Krauss and comrades manage their task with enough finesse that listeners will be reminded why they have won several dozen Grammys over the course of their careers.

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