Alison Krauss might have the most aesthetically beautiful voice in popular music. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This fact may be part of the reason why the latest album with her band Union Station, Paper Airplane, debuted at the top of the charts (#1 on Bluegrass Albums and Country Albums, #3 on the Billboard Top 200). All the laurels are understandable, as this is a fine album with well-crafted songs and the tight, polished instrumental work of Union Station.
Krauss loves to sing with an intimate, whispering tone, like country music pillow talk, and that sensuality is part of what makes her so entrancing. She uses this vocal timbre on mid-tempo opener “Paper Airplane”, yet it lacks the energy needed to propel a bluegrass album, and it takes a while to get into this record. Male lead vocalist Dan Tyminski saves the day on the second track with his take on Peter Rowan’s “Dust Bowl Children”, a riff-heavy, fast-picking banjo tune. It speaks to this album’s essential identity crisis: Is it country or bluegrass? Given the lack of genuinely fast tunes, and the abundance of slower ballads, it’s clearly the former.
Genre confusion aside, there’s much to love: the mysterious slow blues shuffle of “Lie Awake”, with a rising chorus melody that tries to escape, echoed by acoustic guitar, but is always wrangled back into the fold of the song. The old-timey stomp of “My Love Follows You Where You Go” displays the ringing clarity of Krauss’s full voice, singing out for the first time, unhushed and unleashed. The love ballads are pretty, such as “Sinking Stone” and “Dimming of the Day”, but I prefer the faster narrative ballads like “Bonita and Bill Butler”. If you’re a country music fan, you’ll love this album. If, like me, your hillbilly musical tastes lean toward bluegrass, you’re likely to forget this one.