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GAC Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station’s Paper Airplane

Alison Krauss & Union Station's 2011 CD, Paper Airplane. Photo courtesy of Rounder Records.

Alison Krauss & Union Station
Paper Airplane

It’s hard to believe that Paper Airplane is the first Alison Krauss & Union Station studio album since 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways. That’s probably because Alison herself has remained in the spotlight and been extremely busy in recent years through projects like her high-profile collaboration with Robert Plant on 2007’s Raising Sand (which yielded platinum album sales and six Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year). Yet, despite the hiatus, Union Station returns with an evocative collection that in one measure honors tradition and in the other illustrates the timeless storytelling of bluegrass music.

Alison Krauss & Union Station "Paper Airplane" video

Click the image to watch the Alison Krauss & Union Station video for "Paper Airplane"

A softly finger-picked acoustic guitar opens the album on the title track, “Paper Airplane,” before Alison’s delicate voice enters with just a slight touch of reverb filling out the sound.  The balance between vocal and instrumentation is immediately evident as guitarist/mandolin player Dan Tyminski and dobro player Jerry Douglas introduce themselves with melodic solos after the first chorus. Union Station has an undeniable chemistry, held together by the strong bass playing of Barry Bales and banjo picking of Ron Block. Songs like the up-tempo “On The Outside Looking In” (featuring Dan’s strong workingman tenor on vocals) exhibit a well-seasoned group of musicians where instruments each contribute their own voice to create a work that is somehow even greater than the sum of its parts.

Dan sings on three of the albums songs, including the depression-era “Dust Bowl Children” recounting life in the Southern Plains during the 1930s when dust storms blew for almost a decade. “And the crops won’t grow/And the dust just blows,” Tyminski sings, bluntly portraying the hardship that fell on many farmers. The song tells of a farmer’s move to California for work, but only welfare lines met him as machines took over any limited opportunities that were there. Such anecdotes mirror today’s struggles surprisingly well.

Echoing some of Alison’s recent work with Robert Plant on Raising Sand, one of the album’s most striking songs is “Lie Awake,” an atmospheric and haunting piece written by Alison’s brother Viktor and songwriter Angel Snow. Plodding rhythm guitar moves beneath a dark melody as Krauss sings “I want to run away/ Don’t come out lookin’ round/ Too busy dealin’ with it on my own/ He’s right behind me/ Please God I can’t be found/ Don’t cast another stone” among a swirl of vocal harmonies. The ability to create such a stirring acoustic arrangement is a reminder that Union Station really is a master of their craft.

Krauss and Co. chose two deep covers for Paper Airplane; the slow burning “Dimming of the Day” from Richard Thompson’s 1975 LP Pour Down Like Silver and “My Opening Farwell” from Jackson Browne’s 1972 self-titled debut. The Southern imagery of the latter sounds right at home as Alison sings, “My love stands before an open window/ Staring so far away/ He can almost feel the southern wind blow/ Almost touching my restless day.” It evokes themes of leaving home and the idea that if Krauss and Union Station were on separate journeys the past six years, their return is a very welcome sound.

Order your copy of Paper Airplane and watch an interview with AKUS HERE!

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