Paper Airplane is Alison Krauss' first album with Union Station since 2004's Lonely Runs Both Ways and her newest since pairing with Robert Plant for 2007's multi-platinum Raising Sand album. Raising Sand was a staple on music critics' "best of" lists that year and won six Grammys, including Album Of The Year. The duo attempted to record a followup, but failed to capture the same magic and decided to shelve the results, with a plan to revisit the project some time in the future. Speaking of Grammys, would you believe that Krauss has more of them (26) than any other female artist in Grammy history and the third most of any artist? An early start in the music business (signed at age 14, released her debut two years later, and joined Union Station in 1989) translates into a lengthy discography (this is her 14th release) and musical experience well beyond her 39 years.
The members of Union Station, all of whom have successful careers outside of the band, include Barry Bales (bass), Ron Block (banjo and guitar), Jerry Douglas (Dobro and lap steel guitar), and Dan Tyminski (guitar, mandolin, and occasionally lead vocals). All contribute harmony vocals and Krauss rounds out the band's instrumental sound with her accomplished skills on the fiddle. Tyminski, by the way, was the real voice behind George Clooney's singing performances in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. That soundtrack, along with the group's work on the Cold Mountain soundtrack and their steadily building commercial successes from their regular albums, helped bring bluegrass music back to a mainstream audience.
Krauss and her band are at their best when she gets the vocal spotlight, as Paper Airplane once again proves. Of the eleven tracks, she sings lead on eight, with Tyminski assuming vocal duties on the other three ("Dust Bowl Children", "On The Outside Looking In", and "Bonita And Bill Butler"). As with past AK & US albums, I find myself skipping the Tyminski-sung tracks because they tend to adhere closer to a traditional bluegrass sound, which means the banjo is usually front and centre. I'm simply not predisposed to appreciating the sound the instrument delivers. I respect its history and the skill it takes to play one, but too much of it just gives me hillbilly music overload. Combine that with the fact that Tyminski, while a capable enough singer, simply pales in comparison to Krauss' uniquely graceful and haunting voice. It leaves me with the same reaction I get when I listen to a Gun N' Roses album where bassist Duff McKagan spells Axl Rose on vocals, or an Aerosmith album where guitarist Joe Perry takes the lead mic for a song: this is not why I listen to this artist.
Focussing just on the songs Krauss sings, the group doesn't stray far from the sound they've perfected on previous releases. There's a "stripped down" component to their work (derived from the use of mostly acoustic instruments and general lack of percussion) that belies the many musical layers and textures at the heart of their music, which does a masterful job at combining elements of bluegrass, country, and pop vocal melodies. The title track was written by frequent AK & US collaborator Robert Lee Castleman and is essentially a pop tune wrapped in a Nashville-style dressing. Lyrically, it addresses the raw emotions concerning a dying relationship and the song is downright goosebump-inducing. "Lie Awake", written by Krauss' brother and another songwriter named Angel Snow, has somewhat of a plodding rhythmic feel that Krauss salvages single-handedly with her sweet voice. "Lay My Burden Down", "My Love Follows You Where You Go", and "Miles To Go" finds the group at their most upbeat when Krauss is singing lead, which is still relatively restrained (Tyminski's lead vocal songs usually find the group amping up the song tempos). The album's starkest song is a cover of Richard Thompson's "Dimming Of The Day" and it's one of the highlights here, as is album closer "My Opening Farewell", written by Jackson Browne.
Paper Airplane contains mostly great songs, flawless musicianship, and one of the standout voices in contemporary music in Krauss, yet there are a couple of big obstacles I just can't overcome in appreciating the album a little more. Aside from the lead vocal issue, I can't look past the fact that AK & US, throughout their career, rely almost exclusively on outside songwriters for their material. I know this is a Nashville tradition and a lot of superstars (like Elvis and Frank Sinatra, plus many of today's pop artists) don't write their own songs, but something about it just doesn't sit quite right with me. Perhaps I should just appreciate the end results and give Krauss and company credit for knowing their limitations and sticking with playing to their strengths.