REVIEW: Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

LifeInASong_UK

You may remember Alison Krauss from such soundtracks as O Brother, Where Art Thou and such albums as Lonely Runs Both Ways, with her band Union Station, and Raising Sand, her GRAMMY Album of the Year with Robert Plant.

Alison promoted her new album on BBC Radio 2, delighting Michael Ball and millions of listeners on the weekend of the album’s release. She also presents a show on BBC Radio 2 Country, the digital pop-up station, called Bluegrass and Beyond at 2pm on Friday March 10 (but iPlayerable for thirty days to listen to over and over again!).

The title of her show doubles as criticism: Alison is both folk and country, bluegrass and easy listening. Writing for NPR Music, Ann Powers wrote that Alison’s voice ‘can seem like an entity unto itself, a holy spirit wafting through the pop world, melting away musical categories’.

This, incredibly, is the first album under her own name this millennium; 1999 is the last time she was without a duet partner or a named unit behind her. It shot to the top of the Billboard Country Album charts and may well win her another GRAMMY; she is the most successful female act in the award’s history, with twenty-seven. (The record for a man is thirty-one; let’s see if Windy City helps Alison take the win.)

The song selections are personal, as Alison related to Rolling Stone Country. She grew up listening to some of them, while she herself played the title track at bluegrass festivals as a teenager. Windy City, the song, is a straightforward country track in the countrypolitan style, with a pedal steel guitar supporting Alison’s voice. ‘You’re holding my baby, with your bright lights and your avenues so wide’ is a lament by a woman for her absent man. The message is as resonant as her vocal.

Dream Of Me is the idea in reverse, with Alison playing a person on the road. ‘Every time we say goodbye it gets harder to do’ is a gorgeous line. The guitars are set to twang, and this is a very evocative recording of a lovely song. That track was written by Buddy Cannon over thirty years ago, although Alison didn’t know that originally. Buddy provides harmonies on the tune, of whom Alison told Michael Ball: ‘He makes me want to do a good job! He’s your muse and your producer at the same time.’

Buddy indeed produces the album, and he frames the angelic voice over the course of its ten (thirteen in the deluxe version) tracks. They call him ‘Ears’ in Nashville, with good reason. It’s Goodbye and So Long To You is a great ‘record’ as well as a great song. It’s one of those uppity songs that Dolly Parton or Miranda Lambert can do so well, with a panoply of horns parping the melody at the intro and outro. Poison Love is brilliant, with a twangy middle section and duelling pickers complementing old-fashioned harmonic intervals between a male and female voice.

Gentle on my Mind, the best known of the standards and should-be classics showcased here, is given a honey-sweet treatment. You’d expect to hear it on Chris Country Chilled after 10pm as you put on your pyjamas; ditto the piano-led and wire-brushes-on-drums of Eddy Arnold’s You Don’t Know Me (‘You give your hand to me and then you say hello’ with that great melodic shape).

The Willie Nelson song I Never Cared For You (‘the sky was never blue’) is Kraussified effectively. The second verse, much like the original, adds a great beat to add to the minor key lamentation. The gender switch stands up, and I am sure Willie would approve of Alison’s take on his 1998 tune.

River In The Rain, the old Roger Miller song, is set to voice and piano for a minute before the sun bursts through the clouds. A rich nylon-string guitar, where you can hear the flesh on the strings, is one of the album’s most majestic passages.

All Alone Am I (‘ever since your goodbye’) is gut-wrenching, and the string section frames the vocal exceptionally. More country music on the radio should be as tender as this, but it would be probably get lost while cruising down the freeway.

This is music for home, hearth and heart, and is an essential selection for mild spring evenings where a listener can ponder existence to the backing of one of country’s finest voices.

Jonny Brick

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