Abigail Washburn’s latest release titled City of Refuge was a surprising revelation in many ways. Being produced by Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens) brought all sorts of expectations. I enjoyed her previous albums and had visions of a departure for the worst, so I steadied myself for some disappointment but instead City of Refuge caught me by complete surprise turning out to be one of the most beautiful albums I’ve heard in a long time.
Abigail Washburn’s ‘Prelude’ to City of Refuge features a mournful fiddle and an intriguing field-recording of street sounds of what sounds like a chinese city/town, a country she has spent considerable time in and one she feels a strong connection to having initially set foot in the country with the ambition of becoming a lawyer. When taken in overall context of the album, the prelude is like setting out on a journey, a constant theme throughout the album.
The title track City of Refuge is an upbeat alt-country track with a call to make changes in your life in order to shake off those shackles. It marks the decision to embark on a journey or transition. Bring me my Queen has a very stripped down introduction with a minimalist banjo playing rift that remains constant throughout like a ticking clock, something you’d not expect from a clawhammer banjo exponent. The whole sound gradually builds with the subtle introduction of piano, bass and male backing from Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor and Kai Welch who co-collaborated musically on almost every song on the record. There are undertones and intricate sounds that bubble and rise to the surface such as a chinese zither providing some beautiful contrast as well as Bill Frisell providing some nice guitar rifts.
Chains is probably the most removed and commercial sounding track on the album. It had more of a classic alt-country sound compared to the rest of the album but this offers a contrasting balance to the album which doesn’t make it feel out of place.
Last Train is a beautiful track which heaps on the emotion: “can’t your hear that last train come rolling, going to carry your days away…Can’t you hear those hard times slipping away…”. The instrumentation and arrangements give a great depth and make you listen all the harder and share in the unfolding experience offered to the listener throughout this album. There is variety and surprises. Her cries of “I’m not going down like the rest of you” on the great choral Burn Thru which has undertones of Sufjan Stevens, no doubt a Tucker Martine working, is the type of track, that for me, adds the glue to this album. You soon forget what Abigail sounded like in the past and begin to enjoy her new emancipative sound. This got no greater than Dreams of Nectar which has a great wow factor. It starts with low horns before Abigail sings acapella about a lonley character crossing a border and being told she is free. The realisation of that freedom is accompanied by bare minimalist banjo before some amazing gospel style chorals. It is a beautiful yet very mournful track. She has penned some beautifully moving lyrics which can be seen from an individual perspective or as a way of highlighting some of the greater humanist issues in the world caused by lack of freedom.
Divine Bell is probably as rootsy as the album gets with an old-time / gospel swing feel and written by Ketch Secore who joins Kai again on vocal support. Bright Morning Stars completes the album with field recordings of whats sounds like a small town where church bells can be heard in the distance. The whole feel of this accapella track is not dissimilar to Amazing Grace and has that beautiful high lonesome sound that reaches into our own primitive roots and places a strangle hold on those emotions you’d rather keep locked up.
The album is definately a journey to the City of Refuge. Something we maybe all seek at times throughout our life. This is an epic album and is unlike anything I’ve heard before. I was surprised by Abigail Washburn’s change in direction but there is no escaping the simple beauty she has still managed to capture in a more intricately produced album. She offers listeners a moving, mournful and uplifting experience!
Abigail Washburn will be touring in the UK, kicking off at Celtic Connections on 25th January:
Tue, January 25, 2011 @ Celtic Connections – Glasgow, UK
Wed, January 26, 2011 @ The Greystones – Sheffield, UK
Fri, January 28, 2011 @ The Cluny – Newcastle, UK
Sat, January 29, 2011 @ The Railway Inn – Winchester, UK
Sun, January 30, 2011 @ Thekla – Bristol, UK
Mon, January 31, 2011 @ The Slaughtered Lamb – London, UK
Buy the album (currently on import for UK): <City of Refuge
You can stream the whole album on NPR