critic’s pick 172

There is little within the new releases of Bob Dylan and Alison Krauss to suggest a stylistic or even cultural alliance – least of all, in the times they represent. Though new to record stores this spring, they were recorded some 47 years apart. Yet what they seem to share, especially when listened to in succession, is a curious folk-infused foundation.

Dylan, at least when In Concert – Brandeis University 1963 was made, represented the folk aesthetic in an indisputably pure form. Krauss’ Paper Airplane is all sweet despondency, the latest chapter in the career of a bluegrass-bred stylist that has forged herself into one of pop music’s most beautifully boundary-free artists.

There is a wild sense of stylistic reserve practiced on both albums, as well. Dylan’s archival release is a pack of angry protest songs sung largely without anger. In fact, the folk pop persona of a 21 year old Dylan was so unassuming that audience giggles abound as he outlines the saga of drowning deaths of elderly revelers that make up Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues. The laughter continues as the song’s hootenanny design draws to a close. Then Dylan lowers the boom.

“Don’t seem to me quite so funny what some people are going to do for money,” Dylan sings with sober resolve. “There’s a brand new gimmick everyday just to take someone’s money away.”

Krauss, on the other hand, has evolved into an expert torch singer. There are strong folk roots on display throughout Paper Airplane, but they almost exclusively belong to Dan Tyminski, who upholds the dark bluegrass undertow of Peter Rowan’s epic Dust Bowl Children.

Krauss, though, favors the elegant pining and longing of Richard Thompson’s Dimming of the Day and Jackson Browne’s My Opening Farewell. Both are exquisite love songs where Krauss locates and illuminates every restless crease. In doing so, her singing – which beams with a hushed glow on the Thompson tune and surges like a roaring sea on the Browne classic – retains a poetic desperation. It’s a decidedly non-torchy approach for a singer capable of conveying the kind of emotional depth only master torch stylists can muster.

There is another intriguing disparity between these recordings. Brandeis came from two short festival sets (totally less than 40 minutes) recorded roughly two weeks before the release of Dylan’s landmark second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It is being billed, quite properly as “the last live performance we have of Bob Dylan before he becomes a star.”

Paper Airplane finds Krauss very much a part of bluegrass-pop royalty. But within its grooves isn’t the kind of glossy, affected affirmations that stars usually cling to. Instead, the recording sails through acoustic skies with subtle confidence, appealing grace and the might to endure – and, perhaps, even welcome – a little turbulence.

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