There are four brilliant instrumentalists in Alison Krauss and Union Station, but the most magnificent instrument in the band remains the voice of Alison Krauss. It's the kind of voice that sends shivers down your spine on the good songs, and threatens to bring tears to your eyes on the best songs.
Up until now, there are two songs that I would have placed in the ultimate Alison Krauss pantheon - "Ghost in This House," and "New Favorite." And now there is a third - "Dimming of the Day," the great Richard Thompson song. What Krauss does with the song is akin to what Johnny Cash did with Trent Reznor's "Hurt" - the interpretive artist claiming the song as their own. And from that point on, it might as well be their song.
"Dimming of the Day" is the highlight of "Paper Airplane," the first album by AKUS in nearly 7 years, but it is hardly the only high moment. After just two days of heavy listening, there's little doubt in my mind that this is their best album - and will stand proudly as one of the best albums of 2011. On the record, there is also a wonderful version of Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell," the great title track, and three killer tracks sung by Dan Tyminski - "Dust Bowl Children," "On the Outside Looking In," and "Bonita and Bill Butler." In fact, there isn't a weak song on the album - with some of Krauss' best vocals, and some of the band's best playing.
The production, by the band itself, can best be described as pristine. This is music stripped down to its essential elements, and the musicians - Tyminski, Jerry Butler, Ron Block, and Barry Bales - play with a passion that one rarely hears on record, almost as if they are inspired by the voice of Krauss to take things just one step higher. As far as I can tell there are no tricks on the record - no strings, no echo, no odd effects - just the sound of great musicians singing and playing.
No question about it - this is a great record. In what is shaping up to be a great year, "Paper Airplane" is likely to challenge for the top spot.