While there’s something to be said for adhering to a formula that has, quite deservedly, earned a rare balance between commercial presence and artistic cachet, not to mention more than two dozen Grammy awards, Alison Krauss & Union Station’s Paper Airplane doesn’t offer an “in” for the unconverted. From the haunting use of Jerry Douglas’s dobro on “Lie Awake” to Ron Block’s razor-sharp banjo picking on “My Love Follow You Where You Go,” the arrangements stick to the classy, polished hybrid of modern bluegrass and adult pop that has been Krauss and Union Station’s MO on each of their albums. The record is so faithful to expectations (lead guitarist Dan Tyminski gets a few turns at the mic, longtime songwriting collaborator Robert Castleman contributes one of the set’s best-written songs) that it plays out as somewhat rote.
Still, there’s no denying the talents of the artists involved. Krauss remains one of popular music’s most distinctive, sophisticated vocalists, and her phrasing on the beautiful but tricky poetry of the title track makes it one of her finest vocal turns. Tyminski puts his rough-hewn tenor to great use on “Dust Bowl Children,” and the earthy heft he brings to his performances adds some bulk to an album that otherwise might float off into the ether. Krauss and Union Station are extraordinary musicians, and it’s their impeccable skills that are the main selling point of Paper Airplane. But, as producers, they’re also equally culpable for its lack of inspiration and its plodding midsection.
“Lie Awake” makes for an effective mood piece (Krauss claims she drew inspiration for its arrangement from George Michael’s “Father Figure”), but it’s perhaps the only ballad on the album to succeed in that regard. Her reading of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” is gorgeous for a while, but it drags on interminably. Even beyond Thompson, there are some terrific songwriters credited here, but the arrangements given to Tim O’Brien’s “On the Outside Looking In” and Barry Bales and Chris Stapleton’s “Miles to Go” aren’t anything more than competent and tasteful.
For those who can’t get enough of Krauss’s restraint and reserved good taste (you know, everyone with a Grammy ballot), the cover of Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell” that closes the set might play as a risk. But however a fine rendition of Browne’s song it might be, it’s also the kind of performance that Krauss and Union Station could give in their sleep. That Krauss was reportedly plagued by migraine headaches while recording the album could provide some explanation for the by-the-book approach; ultimately, her and Union Station’s steely technical excellence can only lift Paper Airplane so high.