Alison Krauss and Union Station have certainly come a long way since their inception in 1989, redefining “NewGrass” like member Jerry Douglas has redefined “dobro.” But some things will never change: Krauss and company have stayed loyal to their bluegrass roots; they enjoy songs in a minor key that surprise you with a major-four before resolving up to the six; Dan Tyminski, member since 1994 and the singing voice of George Clooney in the film O Brother Where Art Thou, comes in strong with an “angry farmer” number, usually by the second or third track…etc. But the fact that Paper Airplane isn’t a very surprising album does not take away from it’s power. Why focus on altering a Grammy-winning formula? Alison Krauss and Union Station have focused instead on performance, selecting and arranging the material, and song-to-song flow, ensuring that Paper Airplane is as good as it gets.
The album opens with the title track, a gorgeous, heartbreaking song whose chord changes push and pull you like the lyrics in the final verse: Love is like a paper airplane...riding high, dipping low. Track two, Dust Bowl Children, is a mean ol’ banjo tune sung by Dan Tyminski whose voice will give you enough energy to go out and plow a field. By the end of track three, the haunting and tragic Lie Awake, you realize that the album is already worth more than whatever you paid for it. You’ll also realize there seems to be a theme to the album.
Krauss has described this theme as a “trial” or a “trying time,” and not only is it apparent in most of the songs, but it is reflected in the band’s initial trials in making this particular album. As they rallied to begin recording, every band member was juggling studio time with individual tours. More troubling, Krauss was tortured by migraine headaches from the offset and had difficulty focusing. They all ended up taking a long break, during which time Krauss visited long-time Union Station songwriter Robert Lee Castleman, and coaxed the opening track Paper Airplane out of him (she gives him full credit). That was the momentum they needed.
The real beauty of the album is the song Dimming of the Day by Richard Thompson, which T Bone Burnett wanted Krauss to sing with Robert Plant on the highly acclaimed album Raising Sand. Although Krauss felt unsure at that time, the song stuck in her head until finally, when they were gathering songs for Paper Airplane, she knew it was a perfect fit. The bare, simple love song packs a huge punch, and listeners should not operate heavy machinery while listening for the first time. The album stays strong until Sinking Stone, which stands out as less honest and rich than the rest of the gems. The nautical Bonita and Bill Butler will get you back in the swing of things, and finally as My Opening Farewell closes the album, you’re left with a feeling as warm and rich as the timbre of an acoustic guitar.
In such a world as this, it is perhaps foolish to throw around words like ‘perfect,’ but Alison Krauss and Union Station come pretty close to meeting the standard. Krauss has received a startling twenty six Grammies, after all. Attempting to describe her voice, especially perched atop the acoustic masterpiece that is Union Station, would border on sacrilege. The musicianship, the singing, and especially the recording and production quality evidence a group of individuals who are good at what they do and refuse to settle for anything less than what they believe they are capable of. Much of this has to do with the code of “less is more:” indeed, Alison Krauss and Union Station, despite their transformation out of strict old-timey bluegrass into Nashville “NewGrass,” have always been formula-driven. Paper Airplane is a, well, ‘perfect’ example.