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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1355

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Viktor Krauss: Far from Enough

by George Graham

(Nonesuch 79819 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/18/2004)

In the instrumental world, the glory usually goes to those who play the melodies, the most voice-like of instruments -- the guitar in rock, sax or trumpet in jazz, or violin in classical music. But the supplemental instruments are vitally important for the sound, and from time to time, an instrumentalist usually thought of as a supporting player will step out front to lead a group. Sometimes it's a musician who ends up leading a group by nature of his composing or doing lead vocals. And sometimes it's takes the form of an opportunity for someone who is usually in the back row to step out front, however temporarily.

This week, we have a good example of one of those hard-working supporting musicians who takes the limelight on what turns out to an interesting, if atmospheric recording. Far From Enough is the title of the new CD by bassist Viktor Krauss.

Viktor Krauss is the brother of bluegrass fiddle sensation Alison Krauss, but has taken a somewhat different musical path. Born in southern Illinois in 1969, Viktor Krauss grew up listening to mostly instrumental music, especially soundtracks. His parents encouraged him to take up an instrument, and he started on piano and trumpet. But by high school, he found his principal instrumental calling, the bass. He played in jazz groups, and also accompanied his sister Alison in fiddle contests. He came to rock & roll somewhat later than many, but plunged into it in high school, playing in bands, doing cover material from the Police, Marvin Gaye and Led Zeppelin, a particular favorite of Krauss.'

After high school, he decided to pursue music in his academic career, studying bass and composition at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana. His compositional output tended toward the avant garde, with works for electronics and tape. Krauss' first rock band on his own was one co-led by one Sean Smith called Difficult Listening, which existed between 1989 and 1992. After that, Krauss joined up with veteran folk-rock musician Peter Rowan, and then in 1994, joined Lyle Lovett, and has been part of Lovett's bands for almost a decade. He has also worked extensively as a studio musician and did a stint as a producer.

One of the more eclectic projects that Krauss was involved in was a collaboration with the distinctive jazz guitarist Bill Frisell on the latter's CD Nashville, which was a curious but engaging hybrid of atmospheric jazz with country influence.

That sound is also the focus of Krauss' Far from Enough, which features Frisell on guitar, and also bluegrass Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas, who is a part of his sister's band Union Station. On drums on the few tracks that feature them is Steve Jordan. Rounding out the group is Alison Krauss, who provides some vocal that generally enhance the ethereal sound.

Viktor Krauss describes his CD as a "soundtrack without a movie," and indeed much of the music is very evocative, often moody and sometimes other-worldly. It's a kind of musical film noir: not the kind of tunes that you'll go around humming, but something can be the perfect sonic stimulation for a rainy afternoon or just quiet reverie. It's a distinctive combination of sounds, Frisell's bendy jazz guitar and Douglas' bluegrass influenced Dobro, with Krauss playing a few other parts like keyboards, and some electronics. The moods vary somewhat, but the distinctive sound is what ties the CD together. Some might consider Far from Enough a kind of New Age album, but there are a lot more interesting musical facets than is typical for the New Age genre. One thing it is not is an instrumental show-off album by a bass player doing a lot of solos. In fact, Krauss rarely takes the limelight, most often assuming his usual role, providing the solid, subtle support from his bass, which on this album, is of the acoustic variety the vast majority of the time.

Things get under way with a piece called For a Good Time, one of the more upbeat tracks, if one could call this upbeat. It combines the elements that dominate on the CD, Frisell's instantly recognizable guitar sound, with Jerry Douglas plugged in, playing a lap steel guitar. It rocks, in a kind of brooding way. <<>>

Alison Krauss makes her first appearance on the title track, Far from Enough. The sound is a bit more acoustic with Douglas going back to his usual Dobro, and Ms. Krauss providing a wordless ethereal presence, while Viktor also contributes his own vocal atmospherics. The result is unique and evocative. <<>>

Despite the generally ethereal direction of the CD, Krauss and company can come close to rocking out. Grit Lap can outwardly resemble some of Pink Floyd's better instrumental moments, though with more musical ideas. <<>>

Speaking of rock, Krauss apparently continues to be a fan of Led Zeppelin, and he covers a Robert Plant song on the CD. Big Log is the only piece with lyrics, and Krauss' sister Alison is about a far from the scream of Plant as one can get. Though the treatment is quite interesting, the track is does stick out from the others. <<>>

For me, the most fascinating track is Playground, which is just a duo with Frisell and Krauss. There is some overdubbing on the part of both, but the sound that the two create together is quite remarkable. <<>>

A piece called Tended is in a category I suppose could be called "rock from a different planet." The rock beat is tempered by Douglas' bluegrass Dobro. Krauss takes up the guitar and does the presumably does the lead guitar part. <<>>

The idea that Krauss had of this album being a soundtrack without a film is perhaps most felt on Side Street, which evokes the image of its title in the middle of the night. In its slightly creepy way, the track is another highlight of this worthy album. <<>>

The CD ends with another bit of imaginary musical film noir, Split Window, also featuring Alison Krauss blending her voice into the instrumentation. <<>>

Viktor Krauss's new CD, Far from Enough, his first as a leader despite his supporting role on probably scores of albums by now, is a fascinating recording that is focussed more on the leader's composition and arranging than on his instrument. He also serves as the musical catalyst for the formidable players on session, and the distinctive combination they represent -- especially the union of spacey, jazzy guitarist Bill Frisell with the bluegrass dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas. Both have a lot of note-bending in their style, the Dobro as integral to the instrument, and Frisell's guitar as a matter of his technique. This is definitely not party music, but its subtle sonic pastels, and changeable musical moods add up to a recording that will greatly grow on you in time, after the initial novelty of the sound wears off. It all works because of the remarkable level of musicianship represented by the gathered cast, including the guest appearances by Krauss' better-known sister Alison.

Our sound quality grade is an A-minus. The dynamic range, the difference between soft and loud, is better than the dismal standard of today, but the overall sound is a dark as the music. It almost seems as if there is a kind of veil in front of everything. That may have been intentional, but a bit more clarity would not have hurt the mood.

Victor Krauss' musical resume is a varied one, and his new CD reflects some of that, through the combination of musicians he employs. But the eclecticism runs deeper than that. He not only goes from one genre to another, but his mixture of simultaneous influences and instrumental sounds yields a thoroughly fascinating, if understated listening experience.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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