Album Review: Alison Krauss, Windy City

Alison Krauss
Windy City

The first great album of 2017 has arrived, as Alison Krauss returns from a long hiatus with a stunning collection of standards.

Cover albums are a dicey proposition, as the familiarity of the material can rob the proceedings of originality.  There’s certainly nothing original about the concept of Windy City. Great singers have been doing standards collections for years. It’s how Tony Bennett has won thirteen Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammys, and how Rod Stewart found his way back to the top of the Billboard 200. It’s as simplified and rote as cover albums get.

Krauss sidesteps this trap by making a contemporary album that challenges the canon. Windy City splits the difference in approach between those great seventies albums from Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Ronstadt sang in a wide range of styles and unified the albums through her voice. Harris took a wide range of material, and filtered them through a narrow country prism, unifying her albums through arrangement.

Krauss does a little bit of both. With some of the more obvious covers, like “You Don’t Know Me” and “It’s Goodbye and So Long to You,” she introduces musical flourishes imported from other genres that freshen up the arrangements. For her more unconventional choices, like “I Never Cared For You” and “River in the Rain,” she presents simple arrangements that present them as long lost standards that were somehow overlooked by the Eddy Arnolds of their day.

Across the board, she plays against expectations. Two Brenda Lee covers (“Losing You” and “All Alone Am I”) chose subtlety over going for the big notes, avoiding obvious comparisons to those bold, definitive sixties recordings.  Covering Willie Nelson’s “I Never Cared For You,” she smooths out the edges of his idiosyncratic phrasing and finds a melody, making me wonder if that’s what Patsy Cline did when she heard the demo of “Crazy.”  The fiddle-driven Bill Monroe classic, “Poison Love,” goes from bluegrass to pure country as the dominant instrument is changed to steel guitar.

But it’s the album’s highest peak, “River in the Rain,” that is also its most revelatory. Krauss takes the Big River musical number and finds the haunting truth lurking underneath it. Her stark performance answers the question of why those who live by dangerous waters choose to stay and rebuild after disaster: “When you’re out of hand and your mighty bubbles roll across my floor. Carrying away the things I treasure, hell there ain’t no way to measure how I love you more than I did the day before.” It’s a Broadway number turned southern spiritual.

Windy City could have been a formulaic musical exercise, functioning only to bide some time until the next collection of new material is released. Instead, it proudly heralds the return of one of the finest interpretive singers in the history of recorded music.

10 Comments

  1. I absolutely love this album. My favorites right now are the songs I was already familiar with, “Gentle on My Mind”, “You Don’t Know Me” and the two from Brenda Lee, “Losing You” and “All Alone Am I”. The other songs are quickly growing on me. It helps that AK is such a great vocalist.

    About a month ago, I got out my Brenda Lee’s Greatest Hits cd for the first time in quite a while. Besides the songs on AK’s album, it’s been great listening to ballads like “I’m Sorry”, “You Can Depend on Me”,”I Want to Be Wanted” and “Break It to Me Gently” as well as her more up-tempo songs like “Sweet Nothin’s”, “That’s All You Gotta Do” and “Thanks a Lot”. I first heard her on NYC rock stations.

  2. Absolutely. There aren’t many entertainers left in any genre who do anything that would be called “elegant.” Alison Krauss is always that and more. The whole album is right in my wheelhouse, but if I have to pick the ones that caught my attention the most on the first listen, I’ll say “Dream of Me” and “River in the Rain.”

  3. I agree that this is a really good album, probably the best solo album of Alison’s career. I love the fact that this album features a variety of tempos and styles.

    I’m not sure that I agree with the notion that “It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” was an obvious choice to cover. It does appear on the CMH collaboration of Mac Wiseman & The Osborne Brothers, but only as an album track. The song was co-written by Hal Lone Pine (aka Hal Breau) who was the father of jazz guitarist Lenny Breau. Hal and his then-wife Betty Cody recorded the song during the 1950s but I doubt that many recall the song.

    While “Poison Love” was recorded by Bill Monroe in 1950 or 1951 and years before that by the Monroe Brothers, the song will be forever associated with the duo of Johnnie Wright and Jack Anglin (aka Johnnie & Jack) who had a big hit with the song in 1951. Alison’s take essentially uses the same rhumba arrangement and tempo as the Johnnie & Jack recording and owes virtually nothing to the either of the Monroe recordings

  4. @Robert – you said that there aren’t many entertainers left in any genre who do anything that would be called “elegant.”
    Kristin Chenoweth’s “The Art of Elegance” released last September is aptly titled. It’s obviously not country but it includes great old songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “The Very Thought of You”, “A House Is Not a Home”, etc.

  5. I love the backstory behind “Dream of Me.” She remembered hearing a version of the song at a couple of bluegrass festivals many years ago and played it for Buddy Cannon (the producer of this album) without knowing that Cannon had actually written the song.

  6. Bob, excellent call. Lee Ann Womack’s another that I enjoy in the country realm. Crystal Gayle has been posting for the last couple of years that she has an album of classic covers almost done, but I have no idea what is holding that up ?

  7. Robert, Crystal Gayle covers should be good. Have you ever checked out CU’s 100 greatest women? Alison Krauss #11, Crystal Gayle #23 and Lee Ann Womack #33.

  8. As for the Lee Ann Womack comments: I cannot verify that it really was the real Dean Dillon, yet on one of the YouTube comments section for a Lee Ann Womack cover of An Empty Glass, someone named Dean Dillon wrote: “The best female country singer ever!!!! From the guy who cowrote the song.” The link is here: https://youtu.be/tp5oVydbIvs
    It’s worth a watch and listen in any event! Having seen Lee Ann up close and in concert, the gentleman has a valid point!

  9. from CST:
    Krauss leads country pack on Billboard
    Sunday, February 26, 2017 – Allison Krauss was the highest selling country CD in the country this past week, coming in eighth overall with “Windy City” on the Billboard top 10 chart.

    The disc was Krauss’ first solo effort in 18 years.

    The released debuted at 9 on the Billboard 200 with 38,000 units moved, including 36,000 in traditional album sales. This is Krauss’ 10th charting effort, four on her own, five with Union Station and one with Robert Plant.

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