CD reviews: Alison Krauss, Sarah Jarosz, Emmylou Harris and more
Girls with guitars (and fiddles, mandolins, voices, etc.) and guys on the side.
produced by Alison Krauss & Union Station (Rounder)It’s been seven years since fiddler-singer Alison Krauss released an album with her ace string quintet, Union Station; in the interim, she earned an Album of the Year Grammy for 2007’s “Raising Sand,” her collaboration with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. So Krauss, reunited with her long-running band, must be ready to celebrate with some hard-charging bluegrass.Hardly. The first notes of the album-opening title track (written by Robert Lee Cashman), Krauss signals an attraction to the difficult and the desperate. “Paper Airplane” opens with somber, minor-key guitar, as Krauss sings “Every silver lining always seems to have a cloud that comes my way.” Her voice soon opens up in a glorious way, but there’s no change in the lyrical tone. The song closes on the line, “Our love will die, I know.”The album carries on in that vein; the stories in “Dimming of the Day” and “Sinking Stone” aren’t meant to be cheerful pick-me-ups. Krauss is in a different kind of mood. But few voices can make darkness feel so illuminated like Krauss’.
produced by Gary Paczosa and Jarosz (Sugar Hill)Wow. Womanhood has come up with an answer to Chris Thile. Like Thile, the mandolinist-singer who made his name in Nickel Creek and is carrying things further forward in Punch Brothers, Jarosz got an early start; she doesn’t hit the big 2-0 till Monday. But the Texas-born Jarosz, who sings and plays guitar, mandolin and banjo, is a profound, sophisticated talent who isn’t merely promising. On “Follow Me Down,” her second album, she is fully formed.In truth, Jarosz isn’t quite the picker that Thile is. (No shame there, nobody is.) Instead, she’s got the wisdom to surround herself with the best talent imaginable: Bla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, with Shawn Colvin and Darrell Scott adding backing vocals. And oh yes, Thile, who, along with the rest of Punch Brothers, backs Jarosz on a cover of Radiohead’s “The Tourist.” Jarosz doesn’t back down in such company. Not content to be just the girl at the microphone, she plays an instrument on nearly every track, with an emphasis on octave mandolin. When she does sing, it is a distinctive sound – sweet folkiness with a touch of Rickie Lee Jones’ jazzy edge.Jarosz is also the songwriting force here, and the nine original tunes (plus the Radiohead song and the well-chosen cover of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”) reveals sophistication, taste, a sense of adventure and a wide range. Standout tracks? Take our pick; I like the catchy, jumping “Come Around,” and the touching instrumental “Peace.”Follow her down? The more likely direction is up. But I’d follow Jarosz anywhere.
produced by Jay Joyce (Nonesuch)A decade ago, the incomparable singer Emmylou Harris decided to become a songwriter and released “Red Dirt Girl,” the first album to focus on her own compositions. The future must have seemed filled with possibilities, as Harris followed with several more albums spotlighting this newfound ability.At 64, Harris is starting to look backwards. “Hard Bargain” opens with “The Road,” a remembrance of her first significant musical partner, Gram Parsons, who died in 1973. Later on, Harris pays tribute to the more recently deceased singer Kate McGarrigle, in “Darlin’ Kate.” “Nobody” reflects back on childhood; “My Name Is Emmett Till” puts her in the shoes of the black teenager who was a victim of horrific racism. “Goodnight Old World” is actually about how a new child refreshes life – but it’s written from the perspective of a thoroughly wearied soul. These songs get a sparse backing – the entire album features just three players, Harris included.Yet Harris still sounds like she’s just starting her journey as a songwriter. Slower tunes like “Lonely Girl” and “The Ship on His Arm” resound with beauty and depth. Several songs, including “Six White Cadillacs,” kick the pace up a notch. And though there are just three musicians here (multi-instrumentalists Jay Joyce and Giles Reaves, plus Harris on acoustic guitar), Harris seems to have an endless array of sounds to work with.
produced by David Tiller (Ruff Shod)Elephant Revival, which opened in February at Belly Up for Leftover Salmon, doesn’t seem in much danger of following other Colorado acoustic bands (like Salmon) who have moved into the electric world. On this, their second album, the quintet sticks to its earthy roots with gypsy-flavored accents. While they seem to make great efforts to share the spotlight, the center of the band is lead singer Bonnie Paine. The picking is good, but they’d be nuts to do anything that distracts too much from Paine’s high, ghostly voice.
produced by Thom Monahan and Andy Cabic (Ninth Street Opus)Sarah Lee Guthrie doesn’t exactly follow in the folkie family footsteps, but her music wouldn’t freak out her daddy (Arlo) or grandpa (Woody). She and husband Johnny Irion start with recognizable acoustic folk, but on their second album, they step towards modern country-rock, with several songs – “Seven Sisters,” “Ahead of Myself” – infused with a ’60s girl-group taste as well. Far from detracting from the Guthrie legacy, they add to firstname.lastname@example.org
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