Alison Krauss
Forget About It

With Alison Krauss, country music isn't always as simple as it appears to be on the surface. As a bluegrass fiddle prodigy, Krauss slips fashion and dynamic into her performance. But over the years, as she warmed to Nashville's ways — and Nashville to hers — Krauss has become a country crooner pretty much on the level with the most tolerable of Music City vets. Every other Krauss album feeds into this duality: a band record, with longtime pals Union Station, works her bluegrass roots; a solo outing plays more conventional roles.

On her seventh album, Forget About It, Krauss is once again operating as a solo gal (members of Union Station do back her up but aren't given title billing, and no traditional bluegrass tunes find their way into this set of maudlin country-poppers either). It's an easy listen (and easy listening, by industry terms), with Krauss's sweet voice going down smooth. But it's also troubling in its Nashville-gloss manners. When she makes Union Station records, Krauss is a fiery player, one of the industry's best and most versatile fiddlers. But when she tosses on her ten-gallon hat, figuratively of course, she sinks into material that neither challenges nor elevates her talent. It's all about the benjamins, as they say.

So while a few inspired songs make their way onto Forget About It (like Todd Rundgren's "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference"), too much of it sinks into Nashville standard. Swelling strings, sappy arrangements, and rote tales of love and such replace the edge of her most accomplished recordings. And it's not that Krauss can't do wonders with corn: Her contribution to the Twister soundtrack, "Moments Like This," is more gorgeous than it has any right to be (likewise, Forget About It's gentle opener, "Stay," is a real charmer). And the title tune rolls along just as efficiently. Holding it all together is Krauss's fragile, almost muffled voice. She doesn't force a word, and it's that casual drip of sweetness that anchors even the lamest material here. She's really grown as a singer over the years, and for all its wrong turns, Forget About It actually is her strongest album. Now if only she could bring some durability to her brand of adult pop . . . — Michael Gallucci

Townes Van Zandt
A Far Cry From Dead
(Arista Austin)

When Townes Van Zandt died on New Year's Day 1997, his myth was bigger than his savings account. Long heralded by singer-songwriters as the singer-songwriter, Van Zandt spent nearly thirty years writing songs and making music for himself and a handful of like-minded contemporaries. He was huger than his Texas roots, yet he never broke into the mainstream (the closest he got was Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's overproduced cover of his "Pancho and Lefty"). Still, his legend grew.

And with A Far Cry From Dead, an album assembled from tapes that the late songwriter left behind, the legacy continues. Stripping eleven of his catalog songs down to their skeletons (just Van Zandt and his acoustic guitar), adding a couple new ones, and then piling on studio musicians to flesh out the work in striking yet subtle tones, A Far Cry From Dead may be Van Zandt's most representative work. From 1971's "Dollar Bill Blues" to 1987's "Ain't Leavin' Your Love," Van Zandt reworks his best songs as personal and sometimes crushing revelations of lapsed faith and dimmed hope. He recorded these songs in Nashville between 1989 and 1996, and the cracked weariness in his rough voice almost signals that the end is near.

And for all the studio trickery and wince-inducing connotations that the posthumously overdubbed musicians conjure, the result actually powers these songs. Every instrument plays its part with the faintest hint of existence: Drums shuffle along amiably, guitars drive the rhythm, etc. At times it's like listening to a ghost in the machine, but A Far Cry From Dead invites that from the start. You can't help but think that this is the legacy Van Zandt wanted to leave.

There are a few stumbles, like producer Eric Paul's insistence on boosting the muscle on a few tunes that are better served by an understated approach. Yet you really can't fault those involved in this recording — Paul, Van Zandt's widow Jeanene, the veteran studio musicians — for wanting to give Van Zandt a proper send-off. They've certainly managed that. And I'll go as far as to say it's his best album ever. — Gallucci

Innocence Mission
Birds of My Neighborhood

After four albums of mellow folk/pop for A&M, Lancaster, Pennsylvania's Innocence Mission was a casualty of the giant Universal merger. It's somewhat surprising that the band has remained so obscure over its thirteen-year career, since its gentle music would appeal to any fan of 10,000 Maniacs, the Sundays, or Red House Painters. Though Birds of My Neighborhood, its first album for RCA, does not appreciably expand the band's musical vocabulary, it ranks as one of Innocence Mission's most enjoyable releases.

Wife and husband Karen and Don Peris are the creative leaders of the group, but this time Karen shoulders most of the songwriting duties and sings all but one of them. Her opaque, high-register voice is a near mirror-image of the Sundays' Harriet Wheeler, but it's her approach to lyric writing that gives the songs such a personal touch. Peris writes in unusual, declarative sentences that freeze the imagery in an odd sense of time. Her memories are ours, her observations instantly familiar, from the childlike wonder of "Snow" to the Paul Simonesque "I Haven't Seen This Day Before," a celebration of life's most basic pleasures.

Some of the more bleak songs on this album have an austerity that's almost orthodox, but Innocence Mission is one of the few groups that uses this kind of songwriting to its advantage. The glum "She May Turn Around" manages to offer a confident pep-talk to a recently jilted suitor ("You will not give in to despair/It's everywhere but in your heart"), while the more sprightly "July" revels in the inner strength derived from simple faith.

Countless influences can be heard on Birds of My Neighborhood, from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King to the intensely personal songcraft of Red House Painters. It's a testament to the Perises' powers of expression that the music here rarely sounds redundant — even a cover of John Denver's "Follow Me" resists the overbearing sentimentality of its predecessor. — Jonathan Cohen