Sunday, August 7, 2011

Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge

Release Date: January 11, 2011
Label: New Rounder

Earlier this year (or maybe late last year), Abigail Washburn was announced as part of the lineup of the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival.  I hadn't heard of her, so this didn't really mean much to me.  Later, Hoodlums announced she would be doing an in-store performance in March (which I was unable to attend), so I figured I'd further investigate this Abigail Washburn situation.  Over the course of my research, I found that (a) she is married to banjo master Béla Fleck, and (b) she released a new album in January called City of Refuge.

I decided to give this a listen.  My first impression was that it was that it was a nice, textured, well-written, and well-sung album, but not one that I could listen to often.  I found it slightly boring, but, nevertheless, said if I ever saw a copy of it on vinyl, I'd pick it up.

At the TBF merch tent, I saw a copy of City of Refuge on vinyl, and I'm a man of my word.

Abigail Washburn
It turns out I saw, in addition to her riveting main stage performance on Sunday, her sit-ins in Fleck's Saturday Elks Park performance, and I became a fan of hers that weekend.  Not only is she excellent on the clawhammer banjo, but she has the warmest voice in all of female vocaldom, and no matter how many people are in attendance, all of her performances feel like they're taking place around the fire place in your living room.

Needless to say, I've listened to City of Refuge several more times since June, and this is now my favorite album of the year, almost eight months in.

What I like about this album (much of which is co-written with Kai Welch) are Abigail's warm voice, the brilliantly textured music, and the catchy melodies.  From the soaring chorus in "City of Refuge," to the backing chorale in "Burn Thru," and especially the gospel-influenced "Divine Bell," once some of these songs get stuck in your head, the only way you can get it out is to listen to a different song on this album.

Musically, it is hard to categorize this.  It has elements of bluegrass and folk.  It can probably be fairly safely categorized as traditional, but unlike most bluegrass and folk, she strays from the typical American traditions which those genres typically carry on.  Her view is more global; she learned Mandarin while living in China in 1996, and at times this record sounds almost like world music.

Where some songs are soaring, others are slow and soothing ("Bring Me My Queen," "Corner Girl," "Dreams Of Nectar," etc.).  The instruments are sometimes sparse, and sometimes unite to form an auric river of music.  Sometimes banjo pulls all the weight, as is the case with the delicate reverse arpeggios in "Corner Girl;" and sometimes it sits on the sidelines and lets the other instruments do the work.  Whichever is the case, the atmosphere is always rich.  Aside from the texture, the pacing of this record is excellent, with an excellent and well-timed mix of slow, atmospheric tunes, and the more upbeat toe-tappers.

This record is not for everybody, but if you like to mellow out every now and then, I'd highly recommend it.

2City of Refuge3:42
3Bring Me My Queen4:14
5Ballad of Treason3:07
6Last Train3:55
7Burn Thru4:26
8Corner Girl3:24
9Dreams of Nectar5:51
10Divine Bell2:38
11Bright Morning Stars4:40


1 comment:

  1. I love that there is a banjo playing technique called clawhammer. Sounds like I need to check this album out. I didn't realize she was married to Bela Fleck.