Hailing from Illinois, Abigail Washburn was on her way to Beijing to become a Lawyer when she bought a banjo, “got derailed and became a musician.” A claw-hammer banjo player with a voice like a whisper and a shout at the same time, Washburn has toured extensively with the old-timey, all-woman string outfit, Uncle Earl and plays with the trad. band, Sparrow Quartet. Her solo work has more of an folk-pop, indie edge; accessible, original and interesting. Her second solo album City Of Refuge spins sepia tinted stories in ethereal landscapes.
Married to banjo’s poster boy, Bela Fleck and Produced by the renowned Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, MudHoney, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens) Washburn has a lot to live up to and keeps every promise this album makes. The album opens quietly, setting the scene with the haunting and sad prelude to the traditional Bright Morning Stars; a sparse fiddle tune played over the sound of children’s voices, before banjo wielding Washburn trickles in with the title track, City Of Refuge. Unashamedly catchy – a banjo haunted by Karen Dalton drags you arm first and running in to the album. Washburn’s voice quavers like she’s swallowing her words as she’s speaking. Her vocals and stories are reminiscent of Sarah Blasko and Neko Case with a rolling banjo, bluegrass and subtle harmonies something like the imagined lovechild of Gillian Welch and Joanna Newsom.
City Of Refuge takes you somewhere else, somewhere out of the everyday. The album is co – written with Kai Welch and features a veritable army of musical support. Bill Frisell, Rayna Gellert Jeremy Kittel, Viktor Krauss, Chris Funk and Carl Broemel are among a cast of more than two dozen collaborators. Delicate and complex, the lush orchestration is understated and well structured leaving Ringmaster, Tucker Martine to weave his magic with his astounding production techniques.
Washburn’s infatuation with Chinese culture assimilates itself subtly through the album, the languid, exultant Bring Me My Queen, introduces the zither/harp like sounds of the Guzheng, a chinese instrument played by master WuFei. The simple repetition of the rolling banjo under ebbing harmonies and melodies builds a euphoric, meditative dreamscape, propelled by a chant like chorus. A richly textured patchwork of influences keeps the album inventive and interesting, sewn together neatly with Washburn’s banjo and whirring vocals.
Ballad Of Treason is a catchy tale of twisting phrases, starting so simply with country harmonies it builds wonderfully to an elated waltz with definite Decemberist theatrics. The Tuba takes this song to great heights. Burn Thru is a majestic pop-rock piece, summoning Springsteen. Edible, catchy hooks and melodies are unabashed, interesting, inventive and glorious.
Stepping away from mainstream structures, Dreams of Nectar stands out on the album. An Appalachian ballad and an epic hymnal. Southern gospel sounds dissolve in to dreamy eastern cascades, brass, bird chirrups and a deep, rumbling humming choir. An evocative, collaged landscape pulls you deep in to a surreal reverie before smashing it completely with a rude stomping honky tonk awakening of Divine Bell.
Abigail Washburn’s City Of Refuge marries traditional folk and original songwriting with a stunning amount of skill, charm and honesty; Soulful and stunning, It’s not to be missed.