When you hear or read the phrase, "She's picked up 26 Grammy's", you could be forgiven for thinking that Alison Krauss was some sort of Olympic weight lifter with a penchant for raising awards. The truth however is even more astonishing: she has actually won 26 Grammy's and is only 39 years old. To put this into some sort of context Tiger Woods has won 14 Major golf titles, Lewis Hamilton has 16 Grand Prix wins to his name and Roger Federer 16 Grand Slam singles tennis titles. In the back slapping world of Grammy appreciation only two people surpass Krauss in terms of trophies won. Even the likes of Stevie Wonder, 22, Aretha Franklin, 18, and the legendary Leonard Bernstein, with 16, fail to come within touching distance of America's favoured Bluegrass ambassador.
Despite her pedigree, and her potentially over festooned mantle piece*, she still managed to keep a fairly low profile away from her homestead. All that changed radically after her collaboration with Robert Plant on their 2007 album 'Raising Sand'. That album, coupled with the attention and critical acclaim it brought with it, thrust Krauss further into the limelight and raised her profile to new heights, especially on this side of the pond. If there was a chance that you may have missed the delights of her angelic voice then that time has surely passed. Although tempted and willed to repeat the process once more with West Brom's greatest export Krauss decided it was time to return to the fold and has released this album with her band of 26 years, Union Station, their first since 2004's 'Lonely Runs Both Ways'.
'Paper Airplane' was not an easy album to make and caused Krauss some frustration, angst and many a migraine along the way. She claims that they've "Come up with a new version of themselves" but that it was difficult "To get that gut feeling back.........and get that working dynamic going again". You wouldn't know this on hearing the finished product. It is a very polished, extremely well produced collection of fittingly tailored songs, and therein lies it's only small flaw. It has been said before that you can have too much of a good thing and with an overdose of Ms Krauss you begin to crave faults, idiosyncrasy and something less than perfect clarity. The purity and sometimes saccharine sweetness of Alison Krauss's vocal is one born out of an American yearning for all that glitters. Her voice is both beautiful and beguiling but shares a character closer to Katherine Jenkins than say Laura Marling.
The new album is in the main a vehicle to showcase the extraordinary voice of Alison Krauss. There are notable exceptions, in the tale of one crop farmers on 'Dustbowl Children', the Cajun flavoured 'Outside Looking In' and the Irish like shuffle of 'Bonita and Bill Butler'. The former is a fabulous stomp akin to Country's take on Drum N' Bass where the background score bares little relationship to the Bluegrass 'rap' that tells a tale of The Great Depression and 'Waitin' on the welfare line'. It's a cotton pickin' banjo plucking fiddle fest. There is "No driving drum percussion behind her this time" and the tunes are gentle in nature bathing you with the warmth of her sensitivity. The title track, and first single, is representative of the album as a whole. Alison's voice is the instrument you are left bewitched by, however accomplished and proficient her band are. Harmonies are layered throughout the 11 tracks and there are some great close duets to appreciate along the way, 'Lie Awake' among the best.
Alison's voice may conjure up rose tinted images but some of the songs have a less than sunny disposition. 'Lay My Burden Down' is rather like listening to a vocalised sucide note that you've become privy to but are powerless to affect...
"Gonna lay my burden down,
lay my body in the ground'
Cold clay against my skin but I don't care at all
Can't seem to find my piece of mind,
so with the earth I'll lay entwined."
Even here though, because her voice never falters, you don't quite get the buy in you would if it were being sung by someone with a more theatrical or emotional lilt. Elsewhere 'The Dimming Of The Day' introduces some nicely framed steel guitar and 'Miles To Go' veers too close to the twee and cliched before Alison Krauss And Union station wrap up the set with a Jackson Browne cover, 'My Opening Farewell'.
She says of her music that "It's a music of the mountains and of the farm and those people who make their living off the land" and that it has a "Beautiful, timeless sentimentality" and she may well be right................but for me, I can only manage measured doses, unlike whispering Bob, Honky Tonk Holland or Mr Mayo, all of whom are clearly fans. The lady obviously has talent in abundance and possess one of music's finest instruments. In Union Station she has a formidable backing band and with Paper Airplane they have returned to form, but, you can't help hankering after something completely different as soon as you're done. (Something raw, edgy, dark, unpolished with lots of imperfections then please).
*She actually says, "Any award I win is packed away immediately. I don't keep anything on display in my house."