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.