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(Back Porch Records 60480 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/21/2007)
Over the years, there have been innumerable album releases by studio musicians, people who are called upon and make their living because of their versatility. And it is that versatility that makes many of those solo projects rather unfocussed or musically amorphous. Often there is some impressive musicianship on display, but it is not often that a distinctive sound emerges on those releases by studio musicians. This week, we have the second release by a versatile and busy Nashville-based acoustic bass player who has forged a distinctive sound that he began on his debut album some three years ago. He is Viktor Krauss, and his new CD is succinctly titled II.
Thirty six-year old Illinois native Viktor Krauss is the brother of bluegrass star Alison Krauss. As a young child, he was already fascinated by movie soundtrack music. He recalls buying his first album at age nine: the John Williams' score to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." He was already playing the piano, and took up trumpet in the fourth grade. In middle school, he was attracted to the sound and the appearance of the acoustic bass and played it in a school orchestra. He got involved with varoious rock bands, and in college, at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana, he studied bass performance and majored in music composition, with an emphasis on electronic music, and played in a Zappa-influenced band called Difficult Listening.
He began his professional career recording and touring with folk artist Peter Rowan in his Free Mexican Air Force Band, starting in 1992. In 1994, Krauss began a long-term recording and touring association with Lyle Lovett, which continues to this day. He also became involved with an interesting project that combined atmospheric jazz with country influence. It was led by guitarist Bill Frisell, and Krauss became part of Frisell's CD Nashville. Frisell returned the favor and appeared on Krauss' debut album in 2004 called Far from Enough, which featured Frisell prominently, and also had a guest appearance from Krauss's sister Alison, as well as Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas.
In the meantime, Krauss resume as a studio musician has encompassed everyone from Celtic fiddler Natalie McMaster and the Chieftains, to John Fogerty, to Dolly Parton to a anthology of Hawaiian slack-key guitarists, not to mention his work with Lovett.
Krauss' new CD II features mostly different personnel, with Dean Parks on guitar and Matt Chamberlain on drums. Krauss is heard on his trademark acoustic bass, along with various other guitars and electronics. Frisell makes a guest appearance, as do a trio of distinctive vocalists, Lyle Lovett, who returns the favor of Krauss' many appearances on his albums. Also Shawn Colvin and Ben Taylor, son of James Taylor and Carly Simon, as well as Indian vocalist Shweta Jhaveri who provides some wordless vocal atmospherics to a few of the instrumental tracks.
While the sound of this CD is a bit more electric and upbeat, Viktor Krauss II continues the brooding sound of his previous recording. His fascination with film soundtracks again manifests itself, with music that seems to evoke the wide open spaces of the West though twangy guitars and slow atmospherics.
The compositions, as on his last album, are not all that strong on melodies you can go around humming, but are nevertheless quite engaging in their textures. In addition to the original material, which comprises eight out of the ten tracks, there is an unexpected cover of a Pink Floyd song from the Dark Side of the Moon album, sung by Ms. Colvin, and a Tracy Nelson song with a vocal by Lovett.
The sound of this CD is epitomized by its opening track, Hop, which Krauss said he wrote in 1996, saying he was influenced by "the feeling of Tennessee as it turns gray in the winter." He also says that the part where the drums enter reminds him of a jet plane moving down the runway and taking off. The sound is quite electric with both Krauss and Dean Parks heard on electric guitars. <<>>
More upbeat in mood is the following instrumental piece, No Time Like the Past, the title of which Krauss says came from an old "Twilight Zone" episode. His inspiration, he says, was the driving down a long highway in the Midwest and having one's mind wander to thinking about the past. <<>>
If the track Eyes in the Heat has a cinematic quality to it, it's because Krauss originally wrote it for a short film. With the slow atmospheric sound and twangy guitars, it evokes open spaces in the desert South West. There are some wordless vocal atmospherics from Shweta Jhaveri. <<>>
The first of the regular vocals is the only one of the songs with words on the CD that is an original composition. When She's Dancing was co-composed by its vocalist Ben Taylor. Krauss said the tune began as a bass line and eventually grew into this fascinating atmospheric piece. <<>>
Lyle Lovett makes his appearance on the old Tracy Nelson song (I Could Have Been Your) Best Friend. With Krauss and Lovett having worked together for more than a dozen years, the musical partnership shows its depth on this track. Lovett serves up the bluesy song with just the right slightly ironic tone, while Krauss and company provide an interesting atmospheric blues setting. <<>>
Probably the most electric track on this often ethereal album is Pinky Ring, with Krauss and Parks cranking it up, while the backing maintains a curiously foreboding quality. <<>>
Krauss does some brilliant rearrangement on the Pink Floyd chestnut Shine You Crazy Diamond, a staple of "classic rock" radio. Shawn Colvin's vocal is sultry, yet plaintive while the accompaniment combines an atmospheric quality with distinctive sonic textures. It's a quantum leap beyond the original. <<>>
Another highlight among with original instrumental pieces is Ecotone. Its swirling waltz meter, creative harmonic textures, and instrumental sounds that imply both banjo and sitar, makes for a fascinating blend. <<>>
Viktor Krauss' new second solo release called II, is a thoroughly engaging recording that builds on the sound of his last solo album, with the distinctive style he has created. The compositions are first rate, the musicianship by Krauss, guitarist Parks and drummer Matt Chamberlain and exemplary, and the creative sonic textures are often evocative in themselves. The guest appearances by the vocalists also adds nicely to the diversity of the project.
Sonically, we'll give the CD about a "B plus." The clarity of the recording is very good, something that was a bit lacking on his last album, but the sound of II suffers from excessive volume compression -- which most CDs do these days, but this music would be more enjoyable if its ebb and flow were better preserved.
Though Viktor Krauss is the epitome of a versatile studio musician, performing everything from traditional Celtic to rock to Nashville country, unlike many other studio players who have released solo recordings, Krauss has established a distinctive and original sound and put it to very good use on his new CD. Viktor Krauss II is definitely a worthwhile addition to one's collection.
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