Alison Krauss and Union Station: Paper Airplane

Paper Airplane features ample ghostly romance and impeccable melodic arrangements, but it doesn't challenge the formula.

Alison Krauss and Union Station

Paper Airplane

Contributors: Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Dan Tyminski, Ron Block, Barry Bales
Label: Rounder
UK Release Date: 2011-04-11
US Release Date: 2011-04-12
Release website
Artist website

The cover imagery of Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss' first album with longtime collaborators Union Station since 2004, is a calculated visual abstract of the nature of this musical partnership. Surrounded by the earnest gentlemen of her band in their minimal 19th century attire, Krauss is glamorous and ethereal. She seems poised on the cusp of floating gently away from their sepia company and the spartan field tent they occupy. The evident wind-machine manipulating her golden locks diminishes the effect of the Civil War-era setting, but then Krauss would tend to upend such purposeful anachronism even without any unseen modern trappings.

Despite their central role in the popular re-emergence of bluegrass over the last couple of decades, the alliance between the silver-voiced Krauss and the elaborate, rustic technicians of Union Station has always been marked by a productive tension between the faded rural world and the modern urban one. Krauss' tone of tensile delicacy and exquisite rise-and-fall phrasing has become a staple on both pop and country radio at least partly because it tenderly shifts the axis of bluegrass away from the past and into the present, and she has pulled along her collaborators as well. Bluegrass, like all country music, is at its heart inescapably nostalgia-reliant. But country's great leap forward in the corporate music marketplace was predicated on the genre trading a measure of its traditional longing for the brazen, polished immediacy of contemporary pop, and bluegrass was not entirely immune to this seismic change.

Krauss and Union Station are rarely brazen or immediate, but theirs is most certainly a very polished sound. As lovely as their songs (a mix of traditional tunes and originals penned by Robert Lee Castleman) can be, they sparkle with such precise and contemporary production that the essential, rough-edged alchemy of the genre is lessened. In a live setting, the banjo work of Ron Block and Jerry Douglas' Dobro resonator guitar lines gallop away in rapid backwoods fury, but such virtuosity feels more assembly-line on studio recordings (for this reason, a 2002 live double album remains my favorite release by Krauss and Union Station).

Paper Airplane doesn't challenge the formula, even if it features ample ghostly romance and impeccable melodic arrangements. The title track is also the lead single, and it isn't hard to see why: this sort of hermetically-sealed prettiness is hard for radio programmers to resist, and why wouldn't it be? Krauss wrings every scrap of available beauty out of the chorus with smooth confidence; resistance may not be futile, but it's rather cumbersome. A stronger cut is the elegiac Richard Thompson cover "Dimming of the Day", featuring a signature solo from Douglas; "Miles to Go" is also notable, sliding by with subtle rhythm. And, as always, the numbers featuring the soaring Appalachian tenor of Dan Tyminski (best known as George Clooney's singing voice in the Coens' bluegrass love-letter O Brother, Where Art Thou?) ramble away on a whole different wavelength. Tyminski's vocal showcases are invariably more traditional in both their sound and subject matter than those sung by Krauss. The rolling, banjo-heavy "Dust Bowl Children" is the best of his tracks, although "Bonita and Bill Butler" has a bit more verve to its storytelling.

Coming after the striking creative departure of Raising Sand, her spare and haunting Grammy-sweeping collaboration with Robert Plant and producer T. Bone Burnett, Krauss' reunion with her old mates feels well-worn and familiar. And, it might be said, overly so; an old shoe being slipped on with nary a conscious thought of how it might look. To be sure, the attempted follow-up to Raising Sand was an apparent bust. Plant humorously blamed the failure on an excess of craft services (public conflict and discord are less desirable in adult-contemporary circles than, say, in hip-hop) and then cobbled together some other Nashville musicians to make the fantastic Band of Joy album last year. Krauss' retreat to more familiar creative surroundings is understandable, if perhaps not as praise-worthy. Her partnership with Union Station has been a fruitful one, in its way, but after giving us glimpses of more, she's also made us expect more. Paper Airplane is sufficient, but doesn’t ever slip the bonds imposed upon it.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.