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"...keine wirkliche Enttäuschung, aber auch keine helle Freude"
on 28 April 2011
(not really a disappointment, but also not an unalloyed pleasure). So said the music critic of the "Basler Zeitung", one of the local rags. I tend not to believe music critics, or indeed art, theatre, cinema and book critics, who appear to write mainly to get "cred" with other critics, and not to inform The Great Unwashed, in comparison with whom they are SO much cleverer. Their tendency to over-intellectualise things reminds me of the joke of the art critic waxing lyrical about the profundity of how a painting of three naked black men, one with a white penis, represented the emasculation of African-Americans by the whites, only to be told by the artist that he had simply painted three Scottish coal miners, one of whom had gone home for lunch...
In this case, the writer was complaining that Alison Krauss hadn't progressed after the "Raising Sand" collaboration with Robert Plant, and had gone back to the safety of her roots. Oddly enough, it wasn't so long ago that a critic for the UK "Guardian" newspaper was moaning precisely the reverse, that Ms. Krauss should stick to bluegrass. There's no pleasing some people.
However, I have to admit that the "Basler Zeitung" critic has a point. It must be said that Ms Krauss sings as gorgeously as ever - I'm convinced that this girl could sing the telephone book and make it sound good. And Union Station plays as marvellously as ever, and Dan Tyminski (who gets three numbers) sings as well as ever in his great bluegrass voice. In short, they sound great, and you just know that they will sound just as beautiful and polished on stage. No, the problem is the material. No matter how well performed it is, it is indeed starting to sound the same. For example, in "My love follows you where you go", you hear something that is substantially the same as "My poor old heart" from "Lonely runs both ways". In many other songs, you hear echoes of previous songs on previous albums. And the ones that don't are pretty ordinary, rescued only by the brilliance of their execution. To me, the outstanding tracks are the title track and Jackson Browne's "My opening farewell". Aoife O'Donovan's "Lay my burden down" also gets a splendid treatment, another example of Ms. Krauss's astounding ability to make any song her own. Sadly, Ms Krauss doesn't get to show off her fiddling skills to any great extent, there are few of the dazzling dobro runs for which Jerry Douglas is renowned and there is no instrumental number, which AKUS do so well.
I start to suspect that AKUS has finally crashed against the boundaries of what is possible in the bluegrass genre, that they now have done it all and there's nothing left but variations of more of the same. In this case, the roots aren't so safe. AKUS will continue to wow people on stage for evermore with their flawless execution and terrific musicianship, but their records will become less worth acquiring. They really do need to break those boundaries.
In addition, 11 tracks is rather short measure. I gather that AKUS released a special edition available only through Target in the USA, with about 6 more tracks, including some live ones. This seems like a rip-off on the part of the record company.