Abigail Washburn's City Of Refuge contains many moments of sheer, breathtaking, beauty. It is always musically accessible yet, at the same time, musically challenging. Abby does something quit rare here. And it is something very few composers can pull off successfully. She mixes many, and varied, styles, sounds and instruments into her compositions. Working backwards, I can see how she pulled this off. But she was working forward when she co-wrote these songs with Kai Welch and there really is little musical precedence for some of the mixtures she conjures on this album. This is musical inventiveness of a very high order. It may be what makes Abby special and distinct.
Before going any further, some housekeeping is in order; a disclosure: I have been a friend of Abby's family for a very, very, long time. I knew her grandfather (he was an important teacher in my life), know her grandmother, her mother and her uncle (I know her father as well but for only 35 years or so.). One can read what I have to write as either the thoughts of a shill or the thoughts of someone who has been carefully following this young, talented, artist for the past five and a half years with great pride but with honesty (much of which has been shared with the artist :) ).
When Abby released her first album in 2005, Song Of The Traveling Daughter, many were astonished how this unknown could forge a perfect marriage of Chinese tonalities with root Americana music. It was a triumphant, fully realized, album. The follow-up, Abigail Washburn And The Sparrow Quartet, was a more ambitious and somewhat flawed effort. There were fine moments, and stellar playing (How could there not be with three virtuosos as part of the Quartet.). But the main import of the Sparrow Quartet was the fact that for close to two years Abby got to play music in the studio and on the road with Bela Fleck, Ben Sollee and Casey Driessen. I don't know if Abby sensed it was not really time to make such an ambitious record with these players. But I do know Abby was convinced she had to continue to play with the Quartet. And the payoff for that decision, and it is a glorious payoff, is the music on City Of Refuge. The music on City Of Refuge does not happen without what musically happened when the Quartet played together on tour. Now, a little bit about each song on City Of Refuge:
1. Prelude: This short "prelude" clears the palate, reminds the listener of Abby's affection for Chinese tonalities and, most importantly, tells us this is going to be an album and not a mere collection of songs.
2. City Of Refuge: A fine song that would have fit comfortably on Song Of The Traveling Daughter.
3. Bring Me My Queen: Queen's delicate start shows Abby's growing understanding of the value of space between notes and singing less. Very nice classical colors in the bridge.
4. Chains: A song by Kai Welch and Tommy Hans (two players on this album) and probably the most straightforward pop song in structure and instrumentation on this album. A note about Kai. Kai is very cool. A multi-talented musician and, as written above, he shares song-writing credit on almost all of these songs.
5. Ballad Of Treason: One of my favorites on this album, a chamber piece feel and presentation.
6. Last Train: This song contains some nice subtle colorations from the strings and a great sense of vocal harmony.
7. Burn Thru: Starts with the unmistakable intro that something special is gonna happen and it does; including a choir, violin, viola and some nice Hal Blaine influenced, but understated, drum playing.
8. Corner Girl: A fine song.
9. Dreams of Nectar: I am not gonna spoil this one. A staggering number of musical styles are placed, but never jammed, into this one song. When I first heard Song Of The Traveling Daughter I could tell Abby was a musical sponge of sorts. Here, she wrings that sponge out and creates a masterpiece. This is a major composition showing how completely unafraid and confident Abby is to just follow her musical instinct and, much more often than not, to be correct.
10. Divine Bell: This is the type of song that shows one of the many things that makes Abby special. Abby can write a new song and make you believe it is some sort of classic from the south. I defy you to not break out into a smile.
11. Bright Morning Stars: A largely a cappella coda to place the cherry on top of a first rate album. Nice subdued pump organ from Kai and fiddle from Jeremy Kittel.
When I look back to the summer of 2004, when I first heard Abby perform, I can't help but be personally pleased for her and her family. But, beyond that, I am pleased for the art of making music. A somewhat scruffy woman, in her mid-twenties at that time, has turned into, and grown into, a true artist. The type of artist capable of making music that will repay listening and has every indication of becoming a career that, over the course of time, will surprise with its ever increasing inventiveness and boldness. Please buy this album and make sure you see her on tour. She is developing into a wonderful live performer. These songs may not sound identical on tour. But another thing about Abby is she can re-arrange songs for touring that in no way leaves one feeling cheated when the songs are not presented in the same way as on the album. (OK, that was a little bit of shilling. I confess!)
© Copyrighted by James N. Perlman. 2011 All rights reserved.