Upon its release in 2004, AKUS’s previous full-length album Lonely Runs Both Ways was criticized for being too safe and not taking enough chances. While no one can argue with the instrument that is Alison’s voice, the mix of slow balladry with flushes of Jerry Douglas’s masterful dobro picking may have been riskless, but when music was that well crafted, being risk-free was a mood point.
When they did finally return with a sampling of new music, on 2007’s A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection, they stuck with familiar tone but took more chances with subject matter. At the same time, Krauss turned in two of the most stunning vocals of her career on “You’re Just a Country Boy” and “Jacob’s Dream.”
“You’re Just A Country Boy” was a brilliant cover of the Don Williams classic that was far more orchestral then Bluegrass, but worked just the same. “Jacob’s Dream” is Julie Lee’s musical account of two brothers who perished in the mountains in the late 1800s, a heartbreaking true story perfectly nuanced for Krauss’ otherwordly ability to deliver a devastating lyric. Also included was the contemporary ballad “Simple Love,” a sweet number reminiscent of the Forget About It era and “Away Down The River” in which the project gets it’s title. Two duets with rock singer John Waite round out the new songs. A cover of his classic “Missing You” has Krauss veering into slick pop territory, while “Lay Down Beside Me” has Waite trying a typical Krauss ballad on for size. Both are excellent with the latter also coming from Williams’ catalog.
It also didn’t hurt that Alison spent the hiatus from Union Station teaming up with Robert Plant on Raising Sand, the best collaborative roots albums of the last decade. By reversing roles, producer T-Bone Burnett pushed both out of their comfort zones and pushed them to new heights.
The furtherance continues on Paper Airplane. The first single, the album’s title track, marks the return of the mandolin to AKUS’s sound, an instrument missing from both New Favorite and Lonely. This addition gives the tune a fresh flare helping to mark the next phase in their Grammy Winning career. With Paper Airplane Krauss and company exude a quite confidence and show they’re masters at their simple fussless sound. At a point when most artists lead with an overblown ego, AKUS scaled back to create their most cohesive collection of songs ever.
But AKUS is an Americana band at heart, a fact lost on their recent albums, which tended too far into acoustic country. Thankfully, though, they smartly avoid Bluegrass cliches (odes to coal mining, inane product placement) and keep from overwhelming even the casual fan with fast picking and sharp twang. Their Bluegrass is softer, far more adult than their contemporary’s, classier, and more pleasant on the ear.
Even when Krauss relinquishes the lead vocal to bandmate Dan Tyminski on “Dust Bowl Children,” “Outside Looking In,” and “Bonita and Bill Butler,” and the album veers closest to traditional Appalachia, it’s modern charm isn’t lost. Tyminski softens his vocals compared to his solo work, and fits right in. With “Children,” though, he provides the only seemingly misplaced track, both vocally and lyrically, on the whole album. For those buying the record for Krauss’s vocal contributions alone, it comes a bit strange when Tyminski launches into his Great Depression era tune. In reality, it isn’t parculier at all, his vocal talents have been present on AKUS’s records ever since his journey to fame with “Man of Constant Sorrow” ten years ago, and the song fits in nicely with the album’s overall themes of misery and loneliness.
Paper Airplane is everything a contemporary country/bluegrass/roots record should strive to be. A fully-formed album, it executes a winning yet tired formula in a new light. All the required themes of an AKUS music project are present – heartbreakingly sad songs presented as ballads and sung exquisitely – yet the album feels more like a rebirth than a recession. It never rests on its laurels and surprises the listener around every bend. But what’s truly remarkable is when most singers do whatever it takes to get noticed, Krauss doesn’t sell herself out for the price of fame. She doesn’t work her butt off at chasing her youth but instead records songs from an adult woman’s perspective. She smartly acts her age without appearing matronly. Without being anything she isn’t, she stays true to her roots and shifts the focus off her and onto the music, where it belongs in the first place.
For a mainstream country/bluegrass release, Paper Airplane was one of the best records of early 2011. It’s confident without being cocky and masterful without being showy. It’s the perfect continue of their unparalleled legacy and a worthy addition to any music collection.