On her 1999 solo album, Forget About It, bluegrass chanteuse Alison Krauss stretched three simple syllables”un-hap-py”into an eternity, or for however long it takes for a once-robust relationship to harden, crack, and crumble. The showboat vocal moment arrived during a cover of Todd Rundgren’s 1972 breakup classic “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” and proved once and for all that Krauss could probably sing just about anythingNixon-era soft hits, Foggy Mountain breakdowns, the basic ingredients in Funyunsand thaw even the coldest of hearts in the process. Forget About It was a revelation. Krauss’ most complete, most commercially viable effort to date, it marked the rare occasion when she has performed without either her longtime backing band, the all-male Union Station, or the fiddle playing that demanded her induction into the Grand Ole Opry at the age of 22. In the refreshing guise of a pop star, Krauss gave new meaning to the word “unhappy”and cemented her status as one of the finest vocalists around, genres and genders be damned.
On the new New Favorite, her first full-length recording since Forget About It, the 30-year-old wonder from Champaign, Ill., is reunited with the four-man Union Station and her trusty arsenal of violas and fiddles. But fans expecting this dream girl to pick up where she left off will probably be disappointed. Krauss’ musical environs have changed in the past couple of years, thanks largely to the Coen brothers and their goofy-fun flick O Brother, Where Art Thou?. That film’s soundtrack, which recently rocketed past platinum-sales status, single-handedly commenced an old-time-music revival and granted Union Station’s Dan Tyminski, George Clooney’s onscreen crooning voice, his own star turn. (Krauss can be heard soaring skybound over several of the movie’s scenes, as well, and Union Station has a cameo in the hoedown finale backing those irrepressible Soggy Bottom Boys.) Bluegrass, along with its Depression-era musical brethren, is back in a big Billboard-topping way, and far be it from Krauss to cool the foot-stomping momentum and deny her whiskered backing boys their prolonged moment in the spotlight. She’s no doubt enjoying this as much as they are. So whereas Forget About It was an unforgettable solo success, New Favorite is an ultimately frustrating team effort, with national treasure Krauss too often taking the modest role as one of the pickin’-party guys.
As a cruel tease, the 13-track new album, due in stores Tuesday, opens with songwriter Robert Lee Castleman’s sad-flirty “Let Me Touch You for Awhile,” which features Krauss as a big-hearted barfly looking to lift the spirits of a down-and-out dude. It’s the album’s best cut, a duet between Krauss’ trilling coo and Jerry Douglas’ weepy dobro. Krauss sings, “I don’t hardly know you/But I’d be willing to show you/I know a way to make you laugh/At that cowgirl as she’s walking out your door.” And just as she did with “unhappy,” Krauss halts time in the lonely valley of “cowgirl” and makes it just about the saddest word in the English language. Similar vocal hocus-pocus appears again during Castleman’s “The Lucky One,” on which Krauss bids adieu to a desperado unwilling to rest his wandering boots; only numerous repeat listens will reveal that her reading is neither bitter nor wistful but a sweetly complex blending of the two.
No offense to the music men in her life, but Krauss is better off without them. “Let Me Touch You For Awhile” and “The Lucky One” flank Tyminski’s earnest take on “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn,” a traditional bluegrass tune driven by Ron Block’s surly banjo and Barry Bales’ acoustic bass. And although Tyminski sang the hell out of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” for O Brother and is at his growly best hereand Block and Bales are surely nimble-fingered talentstheir shiny, sanitized bluegrass plays as nothing more than a capable intermission while Krauss catches her breath. This stop-and-go pattern continues for most of the album, but it’s not Union Station’s fault that it’s often awkwardly in the way; if anything, New Favorite’s whip-crack instrumental, “Choctaw Hayride,” dutifully proves that the gents’ newfound success is deserved. It’s just that Krauss is such an incandescent presencein this band or any band. And for strictly selfish reasons, you want her every time, all the time, and not just patiently waiting her turn. As far as the diminished girl power is concerned, just blame those bastard Coens.
Krauss sings or shares lead vocal on just eight of the 13 tracks on New Favorite, and for those eight reasons alone, the album is a good onebut not a great one. As always, when she’s leading instead of following, Krauss transforms tunes that should fall flat into mountain-high works of art. Her reading of the lover’s-done-left-me title track, co-penned by pal Gillian Welch, proves that Krauss hasn’t totally turned her back on those hush-pop instincts, and the midtempo “Daylight,” written by Bob Lucas, features the singer in her most soul-pained role yet: as an emotional photophobic, unable to revisit last night’s heartache during the day. That said, one can’t help but hope that as soon as this O Brother-inspired craze calms down and Tyminski & Co. get their due, Krauss will head back into the studio for another Station break. CP