12 AUG 11 JOHN C. BRUENING
Banjoist and vocalist Abigail Washburn is a mercurial artist. One moment, her music sounds like old-time bluegrass and gospel. The next moment, she's veering toward more contemporary folk and indie pop. One would be wise not to pigeonhole her as one or the other. She's both, and more. City Of Refuge is her second solo album, the followup to Song Of The Traveling Daughter in 2005.
Abigail Washburn And The Sparrow Quartet, her collaborative project with cellist Ben Sollee, fiddler Casey Driessen and banjoist Bela Fleck, arrived midway between the two in 2008. The City Of Refuge lineup includes Turtle Island Quartet violinist Jeremy Kittrell, guitarist Bill Frissell, and Hanggai, a Mongolian string band that provides -- among other things -- throat singing effects.
The results are often reminiscent of an earlier and more primitive musical era, which is what makes the music so alluring. In a small way, at least, City Of Refuge revisits some of the Chinese folk sensibilities she explored Traveling Daughter. "Prelude," the opening track on City, features a field recording of Chinese schoolchildren after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. (Washburn is fluent in Chinese, lived in China for a few years in the 1990s, and has visited the country several times since.)
The title track is breathy, haunting and fueled by the crunchy sound of Washburn's clawhammer banjo, while the wistful "Last Train" is anchored in a chugging refrain as the singer waits for that one last chance to find a better life. "Burn Thru" is a defiant piece filled with some kind of hope, however tentative. "Divine Bell" leans heavily toward bluegrass, with fire-and-brimstone lyrics that could have come straight from the pulpit -- or at least the choir loft.
Indeed, Washburn's music could come from just about anywhere. Her vision is broad enough to encompass the simplicity of Appalachian music and the exotic grooves of cultures halfway around the globe.