Paper Airplane Review

Some albums grow on you. You listen to them and at first might be repulsed, bored or otherwise unimpressed. Then, after listening to them a few times, you begin to unravel the complexity—the unique tones and melodies—and you start to appreciate and eventually grow to love them.

Paper Airplane is not one of those albums. 

Yes Alison Krauss is back with a new album, and she brought her band Union Station with her. This can only mean more of what you would expect: banjos, angelic singing, and mentions of a calliope

But you don’t need four or five listens to appreciate this album. From the first it draws you in. Maybe it is just because bluegrass is a rarer commodity than it once was, or maybe it is because of Krauss’s heavenly voice. Whatever it is, there is uniqueness to the harmonies which grabs you, demanding to be heard. If anything, Paper Airplane gets worse with time—but that is only because the latter half of the album does not live up to the promise of the first. Indeed if I were judging the album solely on the first five tracks, it would receive five stars. But beginning with track six, “Dimming of the Day,” the album takes a bit of a dip. Here’s the full track listing:

1. Paper Airplane
2. Dust Bowl Children
3. Lie Awake
4. Lay My Burden Down
5. My Love Follows You Where You Go
6. Dimming Of The Day
7. On The Outside Looking In
8. Miles To Go
9. Sinking Stone
10. Bonita And Bill Butler
11. My Opening Farewell

Three of these tracks are led on vocals by Dan Tyminski which provides a nice complement to the smoothness of Krauss’s voice. But I don’t think I could take a whole album with him singing every song; his voice is gruff and the accent is anything but subtle. (His third song, “Bonita And Bill Butler,” began to grate a bit after a half-dozen or so listens.) Think of him as a spice; without it the meal is bland, but too much will ruin the whole dish. Nevertheless, I consider each of his songs solid, and in fact “Dust Bowl Children” was in the running for my favorite song on Paper Airplane.

Ultimately though, my favorite has to be “My Love Follows You Where You Go,” which also features my favorite lyric, “More summer than a California beach can hold.” This song exemplifies the overall strength of the album in the tension created by the minor chords of Ron Block’s banjo and the release—sometimes not until the next track—into major chords. Think of the album as a mostly cloudy day with the occasional break in the clouds to reveal sunlight. One of those breaks is “Lay My Burden Down” despite the fact that it is about dying. But in death the singer is relieved of the burden of life and awakes in heaven “standing at the gates.” Because of the subject matter and the fact that it is one of the few songs with an optimistic tone, it would be better suited as the last track, but instead it is placed in the middle of the album.

The final track is a cover of the Jackson Browne song, “My Opening Farewell,” one of two covers on the album. The other is Richard Thompson’s “Dimming Of The Day,” which ironically is the low point of the album. It is serene to a fault. Listening to it makes me want to take a nap or, more often, skip to the next track. These two songs are the worst Paper Airplane has to offer, and I would have liked to hear two additional originals instead.

Lyrically, Paper Airplane matches the mood of the music. It is alternatively melancholy and optimistic (and sometimes downright pessimistic: “every silver lining has its cloud”). Nearly every song has some reference to darkness such as “I’m falling with the sun” (Sinking Stone) and “daylight loses to another evening” (My Opening Farewell).

Bonita and Bill Butler, a song about a steamboat voyage from West Virginia to Mississippi, has an air of Mark Twain about it. And with lines like “Once I had a dollar, once I had a dream. Now all the work is being done by a big ole machine,” Dust Bowl Children sounds like it was written by John Steinbeck himself.

At its worst, Paper Airplane is still pretty darn good. Fans of Alison will love it. And newbies just might too.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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