In the 25 years since Alison Krauss first signed with Rounder Records, she has become one of the few personalities to emerge from a bluegrass-oriented background to achieve mainstream success. Paper Airplane is her first album since Raising Sand, the 2007 Grammy-winning collaboration with Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame. It is also her first recording with her band, Union Station, since 2004.
Like many of Krauss’ efforts, she attempts to merge traditional genres with a more mainstream approach. Most of the songs she chooses deal with the complexities and ambiguities inherent in relationships. The title track, by Robert Lee Castleman, compares love to “a paper airplane flying in the folded wind,” with, presumably, the same sense of impermanence. The difficulties of ending a relationship are dealt with in songs like Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell” and Jeremy Lister’s “Sinking Stone.” Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” is a straightforward love song, moving in its simplicity.
Krauss’ voice works perfectly with this material. Her voice has been compared to that of an angel. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but she is one helluva song interpreter. Her voice plays with the lyrics, ranging from a breathy whisper to a soaring crescendo . She rivals Emmylou Harris in her expressiveness.
The members of Union Station (Barry Bales on bass, Ron Block on banjo/guitar, Jerry Douglas on dobro/lap steel, Dan Tyminski on guitar/mandolin) are accomplished professionals who provide seamless support to Ms. Krauss. In particular, guitarists Tyminski and Block drive many of the songs with their licks and single-note picking.
The album’s more traditional-sounding songs, including Peter Rowan’s “Dustbowl Children” and Sidney Cox’s “Bonita and Bill Butler,” are presented with an increased energy level, providing a welcome change of pace. Tyminski, sounding like a latter-day Jimmy Martin, performs the lead vocals on these songs. (Incidentally, Tyminski did the singing for George Clooney in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou).
I wish I could give this CD an unvarnished recommendation – I can’t. Too often the band seems to settle into a groove and to play it safe. This may have been because of disruptions in the recording schedule (Krauss reportedly suffered from migraines during the sessions). Whatever the cause, there’s a sameness that settles into the arrangements. More variation within songs, perhaps tempo changes or the occasional a capella chorus thrown in, may have prevented this.
Paper Airplane is a melodic, satisfying, but somewhat unadventurous album from Alison Krauss and Union Station. It certainly will not disappoint her fans, but I think this group is capable of much more.