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Consider yourself warned: This review has been written under the assumption that bluegrass princess Alison Krauss could sing out the chemical content in a can of Vienna sausages and break 1,000 hearts in the process. Suckered, smitten, and slightly deranged, I also believe that her 1994 cover of the Foundations’ 1968 hit, “Baby, Now That I Found You,” should be the soundtrack for all international peace negotiations. So again, don’t say I didn’t warn you: Get out now if you’re not prepared to agree that the 28-year-old wunderkind from Champaign, Ill., who signed with the independent Rounder Records at age 14, is equipped with one of the most soothing, most complex, most life-affirming voices in the musical kingdom.
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For her eighth album, Forget About It, Krauss pulls a Tom Petty circa Full Moon Fever, granting a sabbatical to her longtime backing band and taking a solo flight to poppier climes. (And, just as the Heartbreakers eventually wound up all over Petty’s first official one-man effort, the four men who make up Krauss’ formidable—and Grammy-winning—Union Station support group appear in plenty of places here, too.) This newfound freedom gives the quirky Krauss (an admitted AC/DC fan, by the way) a chance to work with legendary session musicians such as rock stalwart Jim Keltner, a drummer who’s pounded the skins for just about every Wilbury, piano man Matt Rollings, and singers Suzanne, Evelyn, and Sidney Cox.
But that’s not the biggest twist on Forget About It: While Krauss still prefers to croon about the hell of heartache—another warning, folks: if you’re feeling sad and lonely, stay the hell away—her sound has shifted 25 years back and many miles north. Here, on her own, Krauss strays from her country home and conjures up a ’70s soft-rock stew: Janis Ian, Carole King, maybe even a little Seals & Crofts cheese thrown in as well. Gone are the heavy hits of do-si-do from Union Station and the fiddle wizardry that helped Krauss get inducted into the Grand Ole Opry Hall of Fame at age 21. Instead, newbie Pat Bergeson’s syrupy guitar parts sound straight off of a Leo Sayer box set, and three of the songs are written or cowritten by lovesick Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. Only Jerry Douglas’ slick dobro consistently connects each of the 11 tracks to Krauss’ Nashville identity.
Krauss lets us know she’s in a lowdown, “At Seventeen” state of turmoil early on, with a weepy take on Todd Rundgren’s 1972 ode to heartsick depression, “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference.” Her lush lead and harmony vocals cling to one another until Krauss tires of waiting for her paramour’s return and breaks out with a display of her crystalline pipes. It’s a showboat moment, a million-dollar note stretched over the canvas of a single word—unhappy—and you’ll be returning again and again to see how in the hell she did it.
But this review is not all gushy adjectives and wayward spittle: Despite both her vocal and instrumental prowess, Krauss, although she’s still pretty young, has yet to put together a front-to-back spectacular album. Too often she settles for material that fails to offer a legitimate challenge. Sure, she has the chops to make any song interesting—there’s a twangy hitch in her skyline notes that can’t be taught—but she spoils her fans with those golden moments. We want more, more, more, all the time, every time.
That said, Forget About It delivers the goods about half of the time: On “Ghost in This House,” Krauss needs only 40 seconds to paint a vocal portrait of loneliness—from despair to hope to somewhere in that dull ache in between. Krauss, Douglas, and Rollings transform “It Don’t Matter Now” from a three-minute examination of the I’m-so-sorry-honey stage by schmaltzmeister McDonald into something much more revealing. And on “That Kind of Love,” Krauss and the Cox women turn the chorus into a gospel-tinged gale-force wind.
And then there’s “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” on which Krauss completes what should be a harmony dream team with Dolly Parton and Lyle Lovett. But while Lovett should be commended and revered for his risk taking in both music and film, he’d be better off here fetching himself a Slurpee than trying to make himself heard over sister sirens Krauss and Parton. Their sweet union—Krauss soaring high, Parton soaring her soprano even higher, Lovett looking for spare change on the studio floor—effectively manipulates the goosebumps long after both the song and the album have finished. Slobber, anyone? CP