Album review: Abigail Washburn’s ‘City of Refuge’ expertly performed

Abigail Washburn”s new album “City of Refuge” isn”t any one thing, but a montage of American(a) songwriting styles, from the soft-rock of “Chains” to the dots of bluegrass and old-timey music weaved between folk traditional and country structures. And Washburn”s natural diction and whirring voice is its leader. 

Her alto isn’t meant to break down the “City” walls in its strength, but kind of burrows under them, with a little flip or tic on a turn of phrase. The set isn”t showy or too overburdened with noise, despite the sheer number of contributing musicians (more than two dozen).
What kills me is her choice of harmony singers, who in themselves are cool characters in her miniature army. Songwriting partner Kai Welch, Ketch Secor, Kevin Dailey and a “choir” of more than a dozen names never overstep their bounds as backup, but enhance the songwriting with their thoughtful, close harmonies.
The stage is cleared initially with a prelude to traditional “Bright Morning Stars” (which closes the set, too) and then Washburn enters with her expert hand on banjo, her buzzing vocals reporting for duty to the “City of Refuge,” a moody pump organ hrrrming below the melody.

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Cute country-gospel number “Divine Bell” sounds like it was recorded in close-quarters, bleating with the retro style of Squirrel Nut Zippers. That band”s most successful alumni– Andrew Bird – is a musical kindred to Washburn”s neo-traditional “Ballad of Treason,” completed with a fiddle”s siren. And with pyres “bursting ‘to flames,” “crying for the dying daylight,” “death to our armies,” and a feudal metaphor for love, it’s no surprise that Decemberists producer Tucker Martine was entrenched deeply in this assembly. In fact, he”s a perfect match for the whole set.
“Chains” features pedal steel — played by My Morning Jacket”s Carl Broemel — and Washburn”s singing, which is not entirely unlike Stevie Nicks” exhalations on Fleetwood Mac”s song of the same name.  “Last Train” chugs along just as you think it would, satisfied in its finger picking and mouthfuls of wistful lyrics and catchy chorus melody. “Dreams of Nectar” is an instant classic, much like Neko Case”s “John Saw That Number,” combining institutional folk elements with original songwriting – it”s amazing this stuff isn”t already in a hymnal. “Burn Through” could be a companion to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska.”
Overall, I”m very impressed with this solo collection, even on the heels of Washburn”s Sparrow Quartet effort from 2008 with cellist Ben Sollee (that little bespeckled heartbreaker), fiddler Casey Driessen and veteran Bela Fleck. The arrangements are daring and Washburn/Welch”s songwriting pops with out the conventional cop-outs of, well, pop music. One can only hope the live show is as well-manned and impressive.

“City of Refuge” is out tomorrow (Jan. 11) via Rounder.