Review Summary: An overture to mainstream popularity, New Favorite is a polished pop-bluegrass collection that ranges from lovely and affecting to pleasantly forgettable
Already flirting with mainstream audiences after the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, which, for a brief period, exploded American roots music into the public consciousness, bluegrass singer and fiddle player Alison Krauss had a golden opportunity to win an even larger share of the market with her next release. With New Favorite, she took that opportunity and ran with it, releasing a shiny, easygoing take on roots music that would earn both mainstream popularity and critical acclaim, including two Grammies. Listening to the record it’s no wonder that it became a best seller for Alison. The band simply oozes musical talent and each song shimmers with nostalgia and warmth. The slick digestibility of the album however, plus an unfortunate tendency to play it safe musically, ultimately leaves New Favorite as something of a weak point in the Alison Krauss discography; even more disappointing is the fact that it’s an album that might have been among her finest if just a few more risks had been taken.
If New Favorite consisted entirely of songs of the caliber of Let Me Touch You For Awhile, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn and Take Me For Longing, it would be one of the indisputable classics of neo-bluegrass. The gorgeous love song that opens the album is among the finest pop-bluegrass songs ever penned, and Alison’s voice, tender and inviting, makes it impossible not to at least like. The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn, which some have described as overwrought, features one of the most effective banjo parts when paired with the homespun vocals of guitarist Dan Tyminski, fresh off his powerhouse performance on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. These two opening numbers are emblematic of the rest of the album, Krauss for the most part takes on pop-bluegrass ballads while Tyminski handles the more traditional foot-stomping numbers. But the rest of the album struggles to live up to the promise of those first two tracks, often approaching, but never truly reaching the heights of those opening songs. The ultimate effect is that after a while the tracks begin to blur together as they shift between Krauss ballads and Tyminski bluegrass, at times running a real risk of turning the whole album into a tedious slog.
Overall, especially on the Krauss led tracks, New Favorite is a relentlessly pretty album, a smooth, easygoing piece of Americana that tends to hover pleasantly on the edge of the listener's attention. Krauss is undoubtedly a strong performer, her voice is one of the lovelier sounds I’ve heard in any genre, but there’s really no sense of depth or revelation in her voice or lyrics, just prettiness for the sake of prettiness. But as she plods from shiny, pretty ballad to shiny, pretty ballad the feeling can’t be avoided that there’s something very anemic about the whole thing, a shallowness that makes the album simply glide by without ever really catching hold of anything. Her skills as a fiddle play are, of course, beyond reproach, her playing has all the charisma and grit that her vocal performance lacks. It’s a sad fact then, that her fiddle playing should take such a backseat to her voice on the album, given rare moments in which to shine but never really coming to the fore the way it deserves to. The one exception to this rule is Take Me For Longing, where Krauss finally
gets to use her voice in a driving, energetic bluegrass number as well as bring her prodigious instrumental talent into play, showcasing the best of her abilities both vocally and on the fiddle. It’s an arresting, all too rare moment on an album that for the most part seems content to rest on pleasant coffeehouse atmospherics.
This isn’t to say that overall New Favorite isn’t worthwhile. It really can’t be stressed enough just how gorgeous Krauss’s voice is, and even if her tracks all start to sound the same after a while, songs like The Lucky One and Take Me For Longing are fantastic tunes brimming with crossover appeal. The Tyminsky songs, which also occasionally tend to slip into a creative rut similar to Kraus’s tracks, showcase both the rollicking talents of the backing band and the fact that Krauss and Union Station are masters of their genre when they’re not trying to act as a backup for Krauss, who works much better as a member of the band than as a solo performer with a backing group. Overall, the bright spots on this album shine brightly enough that they very nearly make up for the fact that the majority of the record feels like a conscious attempt to live up to the success of those higher moments without ever really altering the formula enough to be original. A great bluegrass album doesn’t really need to shoot for originality, it’s true, but there should be a decent focus on variation within the album itself if it’s going to hold the listener’s attention.