Over the past decade, Alison Krauss + Union Station have created and fine-tuned an approach that can deliver restrained, moody ballads and mid-tempo songs, hard-edged bluegrass and traditional material and lithe instrumentals with equal helpings of skill and conviction. The result is one of the most distinctive and compelling sounds in popular music, a verdict ratified by a slew of awards - Krauss herself owns more Grammies than any other female artist - and invitations to join all kinds of special projects, from the rootsy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack to a televised special with Shania Twain.
Their latest album offers a generous supply of evidence that they're still on the rising edge of a creative wave. Though Ron Block's banjo adorns only a handful of its 15 tracks, bluegrass rhythms are a little more prominent than they were on their last studio album - a move sure to please fans of the genre, as will their driving reading of Del McCoury's old standby, "Rain Please Go Away." Still, there's plenty of room for the melancholy meditations Krauss has such a fondness for, like the album's first single, R. L. Castleman's "Restless."
In some groups, the division of labor that AKUS employs - Krauss sings the sad ballads, Dan Tyminski the biting bluegrass material and Ron Block his own thoughtful originals - is a sign of creative tension that eventually leads members in different directions. In the case of Krauss and company, though, it seems to be an important force for stability, playing to each member's strength and allowing plenty of freedom. The result is another winner from a group that's already offered more than its share of them.