Decemberists producer and clawhammer banjo player join forces to create a fascinating, lush take on nugrass, with an exotic oriental edge. It is superbly executed by world-class players.
Time: 11 tracks / 41 minutes
This may be a rash generalization, but aren’t albums that go round – their last track can run back into the first, if played on repeat – often good ones? Maybe it’s because they are made by people who take that little extra interest or are a little more creative. City of Refuge is such an album. Its prelude would fit as a fade-out to the last track and it is certainly made with great care.
Abigail Washburn says that this album has moved from her brain to her heart and it is far more fluid than some of her earlier Sparrow Quartet songs, which may have something to do with the more Indie pop spirit that her collaborator Kai Welch has brought along.
Tucker Martine (Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Laura Viers) produced this collection that includes some highly individual tracks, but still works as a cohesive whole. You can clearly see his hand in “The Ballad of Treason,” which shares its brass arrangements with Sufjan Stevens. The idea is striking and is poetically executed: a love song about kisses, it builds its imagery from the line “Our heads are two states /Let’s pull down the gates, declaring freedom” describing the treason of losing independence and bonding with another.
The addictive title track particularly drew me to this set, but several others have grown to match its stature. “City of Refuge” is one to hear, rather than read about (there are plenty of YouTube options) and listen out for the percussion: just a simple bass drum at the bottom end and an echoing, shaken percussion at the top. Washburn’s rippling clawhammer banjo gives the track a lot of its rhythm and adds enormously to the sense of restlessness in the song, as Washburn runs toward “the city of refuge, where everyone is made new.”
Many other songs have grown on me. “Chains” starts off sounding like a Joni Mitchell song, but it could also fit neatly on a Fleetwood Mac album, such is its pop sensibility and the beautifully-placed pedal steel of My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel. If anyone should think that these are just average songs made to sound better by truly exquisite production, “Last Train” is the proof that the Washburn / Welch songwriting partnership is first class. Then fiddle work by Washburn’s old bandmate Rayna Gellert turns the impact up to eleven.
Washburn has moved around in her life: she has lived in half a dozen states and spent a few years in China. This collection displays that sense of having two homes. While the sound is predominantly American – particularly as it closes, with the Southern bravado of “The Divine Bell” and traditional “Bright Morning Stars” – Martine has added some subtly-placed oriental tones. They come to the fore mainly on “Bring Me My Queen,” which brings in the sounds of WuFei’s Guzheng, a large 21-stringed Chinese zither, and the immigrant song “Dreams of Nectar.”
The liner lists two dozen contributors, but you would hardly guess it from the open simplicity of the production. Even the choir sounds quietly ethereal and I missed it for a few listens, so well is it blended into the music. Washburn has some excellent contacts, apart from being married to banjo maestro Béla Fleck. Guitarist Bill Frisell appears, as well as Decemberist Chris Funk; but most important is Welch, who co-writes and sings harmonies on many tracks, while also playing keys, guitar, trumpet and percussion.
Washburn says she wanted to make an album where everyone could find some sense of belonging. I already feel that a part of me will feel at home here for life. There is more to say about this original and spellbinding disc, but I recommend the joy of discovering it for yourself.