While maintaining an increasingly accessible, pop-peppered stance that has enabled them to play crossover hopscotch throughout the last decade, Alison Krauss & Union Station have set a standard for all other Americana artists to be measured against. Their winning hybrid of contemporary folk, bluegrass and big-hat seems infallible, and to witness the band performing is to catch a glimpse of a well-oiled musical machine, the prowess of which is articulately documented on the live collection they released in 2002.
The most glaring shortcoming of their new 15-track studio effort, Lonely Runs Both Ways, is that it barely even tries to expand on the band's proven formula. But just because AK&US aren't taking chances doesn't mean the disc is terribly sub-par; they manage to keep it interesting with some subtle variations and the work of a host of solid songwriters (Gillian Welch, Woody Guthrie). Krauss' angelic and bell-ringing voice leads the procession through the opener, "Gravity," and the blatantly infectious "Restless," both penned by frequent contributor Robert Lee Castleman. On "Goodbye Is All We Have," she successfully attempts some unexpected twists in the vocal arrangement, making it clear that it's really Krauss who holds this project together. In the past, her performances have seemed fluffy against the more masculine tales-of-hard-times offered by guitarist Dan Tyminski. But not so on Lonely, in part because Tyminski's leads are just shy of a certain believability that has fueled his past offerings.
Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas is a defining sonic presence providing precision punctuation to Krauss' wistful crooning, as well as to Ron Block's banjo and Tyminski's guitar. Douglas' playing comes to a full boil on his smoking self-penned instrumental, "Union-house Branch." And while upright bassist Barry Bales doesn't take solos like the other members of Union Station, his playing is the ensemble's steadfast backbone in the absence of a full-time drummer. However, it must be said that steadfastness is not a quality in short supply on this disc; in fact, the very dependability of Lonely is what ultimately makes it somewhat disappointing.