Alison Krauss: Even cowgirls sing the blues

Alison Krauss: Paper Airplanes (Rounder)              

The three great stereotypes of contemporary female singers are pop princess, dance diva or a combination of the two.

But there are still those who cling to older, more traditional virtues, and three of them — Alison Krauss, k.d. lang and Emmylou Harris — release eclectic new albums this month.

The most striking thing about the records isn’t their authenticity, although all three tend to value time-honoured song-craft above superficial glamour or floor-filling beats.


Stripped bare: Alison Krauss' exquisite fiddle playing and crystal-clear voice are the only things this album needs
Stripped bare: Alison Krauss’ exquisite fiddle playing and crystal-clear voice are the only things this album needs

It is the manner in which these accomplished yet contrasting singers have updated blues and country by adding modern rock and pop influences.

Bluegrass queen Krauss, 39, has been a star in country circles since she was 14 and holds the record (26 and counting) for the most Grammy wins.

She is best known on these shores, however, for Raising Sand, an unlikely album of duets with Led Zeppelin’s hard-rocking Robert Plant that topped the UK charts four years ago. Having tried, and failed, to produce a sequel to that masterpiece (Plant described their efforts as ‘more like Raising Hell’), she has returned to her original Nashville band, Union Station, for Paper Airplane.

Krauss was hampered by severe migraines as she was making the album, out now and on course for next week’s Top Ten, but you wouldn’t sense that anything was wrong from the sheer quality of her crystal-clear, otherworldly voice and exquisite fiddle playing.

Singing well-chosen covers (Jackson Browne and Richard Thompson both feature) plus songs from contemporary writers, she is ably supported by her band, especially guitarist Dan Tyminski (who even supplies some lead vocals), although their intricate, tasteful playing lacks the febrile urgency of Raising Sand.

K.D. Lang: Calgary cowgirls beds in her new band Sing it Loud (Nonesuch)

One of the most reliable  cowgirls to ever sing the blues is k.d. lang. The Canadian, 50 this year, was dubbed ‘the best vocalist of her generation’ by touring partner Tony Bennett, and her ability to hit every note with precision and warmth is evident once more on Sing It Loud, her first album in three years.

Recorded live in a Nashville studio, this is lang’s debut outing with her new band, Siss Boom Bang, her first permanent group since launching her career 30 years ago with the Reclines.

But, while her smoky, sensual voice remains a thing of beauty, the overall mood on Sing It Loud, out on Monday, is disappointingly downbeat: the soft-rock arrangements lack verve and variety, with promising songs often reduced to a lumpy, mid-tempo chug.

There are notable exceptions. I Confess nods to the singer’s collaborations with Roy Orbison. Sugar Buzz is a sultry, Lennon-esque ballad with a dramatic finale. Better still, Heaven takes a classic Talking Heads song from 1979 and gives it a country-tinged makeover that finally captures lang and her new band in perfect harmony.

Emmylou Harris: Country-rocker continues her resurgence Hard Bargain (Nonesuch)

Emmylou Harris’s garlanded history includes landmark albums with Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Gram Parsons.

Rather than succumb to the lure of the nostalgia circuit,  however, the 64-year-old grandmother has risen to fresh artistic challenges in recent years, and her creative resurgence continues on Hard Bargain, out on April 25. Made in four weeks, it is a wonderfully immediate collection.

Aided only by producer-guitarist Jay Joyce and keyboardist Giles Reaves (who also adds percussion), she leaves plenty  of room for her tender, auto- biographical songs to breathe.

And what songs they are. The Road pays tribute to Parsons, the late American singer widely credited as the man who introduced the Rolling Stones to country music. Parsons also took the young Harris on tour with him in the Seventies, and his ongoing importance to the singer is obvious here.

Darlin’ Kate salutes Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian folk singer and matriarch of the Wainwright family, who died last year. Harris, one of McGarrigle’s closest friends, was at her bedside as she died, and her performance here lacks nothing in poignancy.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Hard Bargain is easy on the ear. There are deft musical touches, with New Orleans an upbeat rocker and Six White Cadillacs a swampy blues number. Big Black Dog, with its canine-inspired, clip-clop rhythms, further lifts the mood.
Some stars would struggle to remain entertaining while singing with such obvious sincerity, but Emmylou pulls it off with hunger and panache.

If today’s dance-pop divas are still making music as vibrant as this in their 60s, then they really will have achieved something.

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