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New Alison Krauss album travels two ways

Stewart Oksenhorn
Singer-fiddler Alison Krauss, with her band Union Station, has released Lonely Runs Both Ways. Norman Jean Roy photo.
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Ever notice how acoustic instruments tend to keep you warm when it’s horrifically cold out? And I don’t mean just by throwing them in the fireplace.See if these new acoustic releases do the trick until the cold spell breaks. Alison Krauss + Union Station, “Lonely Runs Both Ways”produced by Alison Krauss + Union Station (Rounder)Alison Krauss + Union Station have developed into a two-faced band. On the one side is Krauss, the silver-voiced singer who puts emotion and beauty into gentle roots-pop ballads, backed by acoustic instruments. On the other is Union Station, which plays a snap-crackle-pop brand of contemporary bluegrass instrumentals and bluegrass-themed vocal tunes.This is, perhaps, a calculated move, as Krauss + Union Station gives something to both the reasonably hardcore bluegrass fan, while widening the appeal for those who are not. But the long-running outfit is already the best-selling act in the bluegrass realm by far, and doesn’t really need to market itself so cleverly.So another way to look at it is that Krauss + Union Station are simply playing to their multiple strengths. This is borne out in “Lonely Runs Both Ways,” in which the divide between the two sides is both pronounced and natural.The album opens with “Gravity,” a delicate ballad with the barest scent of bluegrass, followed by “Restless,” which likewise spotlights Krauss’ voice above any bluegrass rhythms or themes. Finally, on a cover of Del McCoury’s “Rain Please Go Away” – with lead vocals by guitarist Dan Tyminski – the bluegrass beast is unleashed. The album continues to sway between Krauss-led folk-pop, such as a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Wouldn’t Be So Bad” and “Crazy As Me,” and more bluegrassy feels, like “Unionhouse Branch,” an instrumental composed by Union Station dobroist Jerry Douglas. The band handles both of its facets so adeptly, it’s hard to find fault.

But I’ve managed. Why, I wonder, maintain such strict boundaries? Let Krauss sing at least one rawer bluegrass stomper, just for diversity’s sake, to break chain of one sad, slow ballad after another.That’s small potatoes. “Lonely Runs Both Ways” is captivating, practically defining contemporary acoustic music in all its facets.For those who love Krauss’ balladeering, check out her 199 solo album, “Forget About It.” For those who prefer the band’s grassier side, go to last year’s live double CD by Krauss + Union Station.Vassar Clements, “Livin’ with the Blues”produced by David Grisman with Norton Buffalo (Acoustic Disc)Bluegrass has long had a quiet but significant association with the blues. Bill Monroe was a great lover of the blues, and his great innovation in creating bluegrass was in giving a blues structure to fiddle tunes and folk songs.Bluegrass and the blues come closer together than they ever have on “Livin’ with the Blues.” The album pairs fiddle great Vassar Clements with a host of San Francisco area blues artists – guitarists Elvin Bishop and Roy Rogers, harmonica player Norton Buffalo, singer Maria Muldaur – and together they dig into all sorts of blues, from Doc Watson’s rural “Honey Baby Blues” to the sassy “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle” to Clements’ own surprising New Orleans-inspired “Mambo Boogie.” There’s even a take on the Memphis groove classic “Green Onions.” With Clements’ exceptional fiddle leading the way, it all sounds as natural as can be – and adds up to one of the better blues albums of recent years.

Noam Pikelny, “In the Maze”produced by Matt Flinner and Todd Phillips (Compass)On his solo debut, young banjoist Noam Pikelny, who recently jumped from jamgrassy band Leftover Salmon to singer John Cowan’s pop-grass combo, pokes his head out slowly, rather than boldly proclaiming his arrival. The 23-year-old with the marvelous bluegrass name plays it safe on the all-acoustic, all-instrumental “In the Maze.” Backed by the established string trio of bassist Todd Phillips, guitarist David Grier and mandolinist Matt Flinner, plus fiddler Gabe Witcher, Pikelny shows off the range of his compositional interests, from the soft and slow “Millvale Waltz” to the banjo-centric “Speed Bump” to the barn-burning “Manchicken.” But while the playing is consistently at a high level, Pikelny’s voice is only just beginning to emerge; at times, as on the chugging “Overland,” the long shadow of Béla Fleck looms.Yonder Mountain String Band, “Mountain Tracks, Volume 3″(Frog Pad Records)I have long noted a gap between the high popularity of Yonder Mountain String Band and the Colorado quartet’s not-so-high level of musicality. Yonder Mountain seemed to have gained their considerable stature more through their image – an all-acoustic group that jams – than what was actually happening musically.With the latest installment of “Mountain Tracks,” the band’s series of full-concert, live recordings, the gap is still there, though it has closed slightly. It is easy, however, to attribute this closure entirely to the presence of fiddler Darol Anger, who appears as a special guest throughout this two-disc set, recorded at the band’s 2003 Kinfolk Celebration in Lyons. Yonder Mountain remains several artistic steps down from a bunch of acts that can’t match them as a draw. The band’s high spirits are evident on tunes like the Irish traditional “Old Plank Road” and the original instrumental “Maid of the Canyon”; there is a ragged appeal in the catchy song “Left Me in a Hole,” and the spacy weirdness that is the “Peace of Mind” / “Snow on the Pines” medley; and Yonder Mountain treads new ground on the sprawling “Steep Grade, Sharp Curves.” But enthusiasm, even enthusiasm that manages to be captured on CD, doesn’t erase rhythmic clumsiness, mediocre singing and modest jamming capacities.

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, “Brand New Strings”produced by Skaggs (Skaggs Family Records)Singer-mandolionist – and reformed country superstar – Ricky Skaggs believes devoutly in the redemptive power of positive thinking. “Brand New Strings” is filled with songs about sinners overcoming their low standing by believing in something good. Usually, as in “Enjoy the Ride” and “Why Did I Wait So Long?” that something good is the word of the Lord. Just having love in your heart works in “Love Does It Everytime” and “Spread a Little Love Around.” The idea can come off as “turn a frown upside down” simple (yes, that lyric actually appears). But on the title track, about having your head turned around by the sound of music – and featuring some inspired picking, with Skaggs even breaking out the electric guitar – simple and divine come together. Skaggs might be at his best when he lets the instruments do the talking, as on the instrumental gospel tune “1st Corinthians” – and the Irish-inspired Skaggs original “Monroe Dancing.”Acoustic Syndicate, “Long Way Round”produced by Lloyd Maines and Acoustic Syndicate (Sugar Hill)The first several CDs by Acoustic Syndicate showed that the North Carolina band’s songwriting and studio abilities lagged behind its live playing. On “Long Way Round,” the lyrics are still too-often sophomoric noodlings (representative sample: “I seek inside information as I try to figure the maze”). But the music – an original, appealing mélange of bluegrass, folk and rock, built on acoustic guitar and banjo, drums and saxophone – has taken a step forward. “Hypocrite Smile,” a put-down of self-righteous preachers, features hints of jazz and reggae, and the title track, the only song not written by Acoustic Syndicate, shows the potential for mixing blues, rock and bluegrass. The folk harmonies in “The Rhythm of Us” do, in their way, match the band’s hippie-vibe lyrics. Acoustic Syndicate did well to bring in a producer, Texas alt-country star Lloyd Maines. Next, they might think about hooking a lyricist.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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