Listening to Alison Krauss sing is like having rivulets of chilled water trickle down your back on a hot day. Krauss's cool, crystalline vocals have been the talk of bluegrass since she signed with Rounder Records at the age of 15. She has also been a champion fiddler since her teens. Krauss surprised everyone a few years back by sweeping the Country Music Awards with what was essentially a progressive bluegrass collection. But despite Music Row invitations to move into country full time, Krauss has remained true to her bluegrass roots even as she continues to expand her range.
Case in point: "Forget About It" (Rounder) features Krauss's spry fiddle on only three of its 11 tracks, though she's responsible for "strings" on other cuts. The new album includes songs by former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald and Todd Rundgren. Besides her own award-winning Union Station band, Krauss enlists such canny studio vets as drummer Jim Keltner and pianist Matt Rollings.
The results are pure Krauss. She has spun a wistful song cycle about romantic loss and loneliness, her ruminations delivered with tremulous grace and weariness of heart. This is not a happy album, but it's a beautiful one, from the quiet desperation of "Stay" and "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," and the fatalism of "Forget About It" and "It Don't Matter Now," to "Ghost in This House," a brilliant recasting of Shenandoah's 1990 hit.
In it, Krauss's slow, haunted vocal is "living proof of the damage that heartbreak can do . . . I'm just a whisper of smoke/ I'm all that's left of two hearts on fire/ that once burned out of control." With its aching three-part harmony and new band member Jerry Douglas's melancholy dobro, it's one of the most "bluegrassy" cuts on the album, along with "Forget About It" and "Never Got Off the Ground" (which both feature mandolinist Sam Bush) and the full-of-self-doubt "Maybe."
But Krauss does as well with such pop-leaning material as Rundgren's rueful "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference" and McDonald's slow, spare "Empty Hearts," in which her admonition to "tell me what an empty heart must feel" is underscored by Douglas's fragile lap steel guitar.
Though the album is inherently sad, there is slight relief with "That Kind of Love," in which Krauss and the Cox Family's sisters confess that the heart usually overrides the mind in matters of romance, and the beautiful waltz "Dreaming My Dreams With You," in which Krauss teams up with Lyle Lovett and Dolly Parton for some gorgeous harmonies of heartbreak.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)