- - Monday, April 11, 2011

Paper Airplane

Alison Krauss & Union Station

Rounder Records

With 27 Grammy Awards under her belt — the highest tally for any female in Grammy history — and a new swell of fans, courtesy of her recent album with Robert Plant, Alison Krauss is at the pinnacle of her career. She’s the queen of bluegrass.

Where do you go once you’ve reached the throne? If you’re Miss Krauss, you sit tight and enjoy the view a little while longer.

“Paper Airplane” finds her creating a familiar sound with Union Station, her backup band since 1987. The five musicians haven’t cut an album together in seven years, but they bounce between old-timey folk and contemporary bluegrass without a trace of rust, playing with the crisp efficiency of Nashville session musicians while still letting their own quirks shine through.

Like the country equivalent of The Band backing Bob Dylan, Union Station has significant star power on its own.

Dan Tyminski, who plays mandolin and sings backup, is the man behind the revamped version of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which appeared in the 2001 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Jerry Douglas, the band’s celebrated dobro player, has won three “Musician of the Year” CMAs since 2002.

Miss Krauss gives the guys enough room to shine, relinquishing vocal duties to Mr. Tyminski on “Dustbowl Children” and allowing the others to flex their muscles on long instrumental passages. Even so, her own performances take the spotlight. Once known primarily for her fiddle playing, she’s grown into a first-rate vocalist, blessed with a slight vibrato that gives shape to her melodies without erasing her country pedigree.

“Paper Airplane” brings a sense of elegance to the bluegrass genre, pitching its tent somewhere between the earthy twang of Miss Krauss‘ early work and the polished, sepia-toned charm of “Raising Sand.”

Wasting Light

Foo Fighters


If Alison Krauss is the bluegrass queen, then Dave Grohl is the reigning king of alternative rock. “Wasting Light,” his seventh album with Foo Fighters, sounds like a highlights reel from Mr. Grohl’s storied career. It’s a collection of bottom-heavy pop anthems, rock songs that sound like Nirvana and three-minute guitar workouts that take their cues from Queens of the Stone Age. Thumbing his nose at the digital age, producer Butch Vig captures everything in analog sound, using Mr. Grohl’s garage as a makeshift studio.

Mr. Vig, who first worked with Mr. Grohl on Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” isn’t the only person returning to the fold. Pat Smear, who dropped out of the lineup after 1997’s “The Colour and the Shape,” is an official Foo Fighter once again, and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic makes a cameo on “I Should Have Known.” Husker Du frontman Bob Mould also stops by to sing a few harmonies on “Dear Rosemary.”

Despite the heavy guest list, “Wasting Light” belongs to the Foo Fighters, who fill the album with balanced blasts of melody and brawny guitar muscle. Mr. Grohl hasn’t written songs this potent since the band’s 1995 debut.

So Beautiful or So What

Paul Simon

Concord Music Group

Although billed as a return to his acoustic roots, Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful or So What” includes plenty of the rhythmic, globetrotting grooves that have anchored his work since “Graceland.” Twenty-five years later, he isn’t abandoning that style as much as augmenting it with sly references to the modern era.

Mr. Simon makes no attempt to hide his age. He’s turning 70 this fall, and “So Beautiful or So What” includes songs about God, Jesus and the long line outside the Pearly Gates. The music sounds young and adventurous, though, contrasting Mr. Simon’s lyrics with a mix of African-flavored instrumentation and assorted samples, including excerpts from a 1941 sermon by Rev. J.M. Gates and vintage recordings of Sony Terry’s harmonica.

There are several intimate folk songs here, including the 96-second “Amulet.” This album shines its brightest on the beefed-up numbers, though, where Mr. Simon takes the highlights from his past work and rolls them into composite, lighthearted pop songs.

Who says 70 isn’t the new 25?

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