Krauss blends old and new


July 22, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Alison Krauss

Forget About It (Rounder 11661-0465)

Think of bluegrass singing, and the sound that comes to mind is the classic "high, lonesome" sound of Appalachian music -- a twangy, keening tenor soaring plaintively above the swirl of guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle.

Think of Alison Krauss, and what comes to mind is something altogether different. Although Krauss' voice does go high and can, on occasion, sound quite lonely, there's nothing of the high, lonesome quality to her singing. Instead, there's a quiet intensity that brings out the hidden beauty in any melody.

Hers is not a classic bluegrass vocal style, but as "Forget About It" demonstrates, Krauss' sweetly understated approach goes a long way toward bridging the gap between old-timey aesthetics and contemporary pop songwriting.

Unlike the Seldom Scene, Krauss and her band, Union Station, aren't offering mere bluegrass versions of pop/rock songs. Instead, Krauss' approach is more like a translation, expressing the melodic and harmonic ideas of pop material, but doing so within the musical vernacular of bluegrass.

Listen to her sing "Empty Hearts," and you'll have a hard time believing the song was written by former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. Sure, the harmonic ideas are worlds away from the chord changes to "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," but you wouldn't know that from the way they're played. Indeed, the lap steel guitar break provided by guest Jerry Douglas would fit easily on any old-timey lament.

Even "Maybe," which has Krauss moving still closer to rock and roll, nonetheless finds the singer staying true to her roots. Built around a verse that dances between two notes over a descending bass line, the song would be easy to imagine as an Elton John single, perhaps some long-lost B-side from the "Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road" period.

Despite the addition of an electric guitar solo, Krauss and company clearly think of "Maybe" as a bluegrass song -- one with a chorus tailor-made for the high, lonesome harmonies of guest mandolinist Sam Bush.

Not every song on "Forget About It" pushes the envelope quite so aggressively. "Never Got off the Ground" sounds remarkably traditional, despite the obvious pop/rock shape of its chorus, while "Dreaming My Dreams With You" is blessed with a classically Appalachian arching chorus and waltz-time pulse.

But the album's most marvelous moments are those -- like on Todd Rundgren's "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference" -- in which mainstream pop is so utterly transformed that it almost becomes hard to imagine these songs done any other way. ****


Jon Hassell

Fascinoma (Water Lily Acoustics 70)

There has always been something otherworldly about Jon Hassell's music. Drawing both from Eastern musical traditions and the droning pulse patterns of composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Hassell came off as more a composer than a trumpet player. With "Fascinoma," Hassell shows off his interpretive side -- yet still manages to conjure magical worlds of sound. Although most of the album's songs are jazz standards, Hassell hardly takes a traditional approach, opting instead for atmospheric settings in which the melody and harmony drift in and out of focus like trees in thick fog. So even though he has some first-rate accompanists -- including guitarist Ry Cooder and pianist Jacky Terrason -- we get a much stronger sense of the ensemble than we do of the individual players. A unique and fascinating recording. ***1/2



No Boundaries (Epic 63653)

If you can judge an artist's commitment to a cause by the quality of material he or she gives to a charity album, then it seems safe to say that our rock stars are deeply stirred by the plight of the Kosovar refugees. How else to explain the unremitting excellence of the selections donated to "No Boundaries"? Not only does it boast a genuine hit single -- Pearl Jam's heartfelt remake of the maudlin Wayne Cochrane oldie "Last Kiss" -- but it also features excellent alternate versions of Korn's "Freak on a Leash" (in a surprisingly funky remix) and Alanis Morissette's "Baba" (done live, and with far more fire than the studio rendition). Best of all, despite its diverse range of contributors -- a group that spans from Tori Amos to Black Sabbath to Jamiroquai -- the album's songs fit well together. ***


Nine Inch Nails

The Day the World Went Away (Nothing/Interscope 97026)

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