Alison Krauss + Union Station: Alison Krauss and Union Station

Lonely Runs Both Ways (Rounder)

Music Reviews Alison Krauss
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Alison Krauss + Union Station: Alison Krauss and Union Station

When Alison Krauss sings—eyes fluttering, mouth barely open—she conjures American landscapes: grain silos, AM radio, lovelorn teens, Wal-Mart, movie-theater parking lots, Pizza Huts, interstate highways, the Smoky Mountains, migrant farmers, the Colorado River. Her voice rings warm and sweet, graceful and forgiving. The maps she paints are generous.

Krauss has been singing bluegrass since the late ’80s, but it wasn’t until 2001 that her genre of choice enjoyed an odd and serendipitous renaissance, bolstered by the unexpected success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack (which featured both Krauss and Union Station guitarist/vocalist Dan Tyminski). O Brother may have helped Krauss commercially, but her talent had hardly gone unrecognized before that time—in February 2004, Krauss trotted past Aretha Franklin to become the single most decorated female artist in Grammy history, bringing her career total to an unprecedented 17. And while the Grammys have never been a particularly reliable gauge of contemporary heat, Krauss’ incessant statue-gathering has certainly assured her a slot in the Americana canon. Bold and precise, Krauss is a classic American singer, perfectly deserving of anointment, and ready to claim her rightful slot alongside homegrown greats like Franklin and Sarah Vaughn.

Lonely Runs Both Ways, Krauss’ latest outing with longtime band Union Station, houses a healthy mix of sweetly mewed laments and scrappy bluegrass throwdowns, weaving (as always) a pop sensibility into brash bluegrass ping. Krauss’ collaborators (see folk heroes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who co-wrote the excellent “Wouldn’t Be So Sad”) and bandmates lend glorious support, plucking and strumming at full frenzy— but Lonely is still all about Alison, with nearly every track anchored by her honeyed coos and sharp fiddle wails.

nearly all bluegrass musicians, Krauss relies heavily on tough, time-tested traditions. While her records may vary thematically, reflecting tiny jumps in style (see a heavier emphasis on pop, country, folk or bluegrass), Krauss has never seemed especially anxious to test the limits of her fusion aesthetic, ever opting for tight production and studio luster. Lonely Runs Both Ways is spit-polished to a high, Nashville sheen, airbrushed into perfection and loaded down with layer upon layer of gooey gloss. Ultimately, all that shine holds Krauss back: she’s not a precious or sentimental singer, never entertaining smarmy diva affectations, and, subsequently, the record’s Starbucks-ready glow only detracts from Krauss’ vocals, tying them up in an uninspired, adult-contemporary politene ss.

Unsurprisingly, Lonely's best songs are those that allow Krauss to frankly engage her listeners, avoiding sappiness in favor of a genuine, ugly restlessness. Opener “Gravity” couples Krauss’ pipes with quivering acoustic strums and barely-there dobro yawns, with Krauss wearily admitting, “The people who love me still ask me / When are you coming back to town? / And I answer, quite frankly, when they stop building roads.” Closing track “A Living Prayer” stands as the record’s most impressive moment: accompanied solely by a pair of guitars, Krauss sings gently and plainly, puffing life into her gospel, imbuing it with all the soul she can muster. It’s just enough to make you believe.