Thursday, September 13, 2007
Dancing With Death
A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection
Rounder Records CDROUN0555 / 0 11661 0555 2 0
Alison Krauss has recorded with a lot of people over the years, but she's usually connected with her band, Union Station. Union Station have produced a bunch of consistently high-quality records over the last decade, and my introduction came by way of a double-disc release from 2002 of the group playing live in Louisville, of all places. Turns out, I think I was here in town on the day in question, but I was only dimly aware of her at the time. Like many people, I became more aware of her from her work on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), and I sought her out after that introduction. The Live in Louisville CD is the one I picked.
Well, that performance is really something. I had not listened much to bluegrass (and some of my friends laughed in disbelief when I mentioned it), but here was an example of the best music transcending genre. They were just so utterly adept at their instruments, and the music was so carefully crafted and flawlessly performed, that I was mesmerized. Each of the band members is at or near the top of the virtuoso list for their particular instrument, and Alison's voice hits a particular sweet spot for me. She and Dan Tyminski (the singing voice in O Brother for George Clooney) harmonize like different lobes of the same brain. The recording, though live, is wonderfully clear and quiet. That disc remains the single most listened to recording on my iTunes (though there are several others nipping at its heels).
Afterward I got all her other recordings, and there's hardly a low spot in the lot. (Ron Block's compositions are almost literally dunked in the blood o' Jesus, making me reach for the 'next' button, but his banjo and guitar playing elsewhere are, well, inspired.) While they play some straightforward banjo-driven bluegrass, much of their music straddles several genres without quite committing: soft rock, quiet ballads, bluegrass, soft country, folk music. They're not blazing any new trails, but they're also not quite playing any of these exactly.
This latest release, A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection, is Alison Krauss without Union Station, though several band members play on some of the songs. There are several duets here, and songs from movie soundtracks and other odds and ends. In spite of the individual recordings having come from different times and places, they have a unity of style one expects from the artist, many having a hymn-like quality.
In her concert banter, Alison has referred to the "sad, pathetic" nature of most of the things they play, and this CD takes that to new extremes. Most everything is downcast, and several things morbidly so. One tune in particular, Jacob's Dream, tells the story of two young boys in 1863 who get separated from their parents and get lost in the woods... where they perish! (You thought there was relief coming, no?) The chorus of the song has the children crying out to their parents for help while they expire in the woods. (Jesus, lady!) Likewise, her duet with Brad Paisley, Whiskey Lullaby, tells of a double-suicide of two lovers who couldn't make things work. Things lighten in tiny steps from these two, but only a little. Simple Love, and the lullaby Baby Mine, let the sun shine a little, but it's more comfort than exuberance. And there is one bona fide bluegrass track, "Sawing on the Strings," which is indistinguishable in its details from a Union Station tune.
I happen to love the dark and tormented in music--it's why I like so much religious music--so what might be off-putting for some is a positive boon for me. And everything is so spectacularly performed and captured that it's hard not to listen enraptured. Jerry Douglas features on a couple tracks, and the sound of his dobro is every nostalgic thing condensed into an electric thread of melancholy that suits this music brilliantly.
There are two duets with John Waite which don't quite work to my ear--the hit I Ain't Missing You, while thematically a good Alison Krauss tune, just doesn't use the attributes of her voice to good effect. But that's two tracks out of 16, which is a pretty good ratio.