A banjo-playing, singer/songwriter based in Nashville can easily be typecast as a honky-tonk, whisky drinker, mourning the pastoral past. Abigail Washburn‘s tunes, though, aren’t the kind you’ll find pouring out of Lower Broad at two in the morning – especially the ones found on City of Refuge. Her previous work – intricate, riveting folk – is temporarily set aside for a new direction on this album, that she says “feels like a really natural progression of working with people that reach into other genres and other spaces musically”. What does this mean? It means the near-absence of stereotypical twang, the addition of wonderful classically composed orchestration, and an entirely new group of collaborators, including the Decemberists’ Chris Funk, My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor and Morgan Jahnig. Big picture? It means a genre-fusing collection of songs that acknowledge their folk backgrounds while adhering to pop conventions, resulting in an immensely enjoyable, widely accessible album.
City of Refuge begins with “Prelude”, a sonic collage of children shouting and playing, a ball bouncing, a whistle, and a fiddle melody that sounds like a funeral dirge. Setting the stage for what Washburn is seeking refuge from, the everyday mundanities, the track launches seamlessly into the subtle banjo and crisp vocals of the album’s title track. With the addition of impeccable vocal harmonies, atmospheric jazzy guitar, and understated fiddle, the formula that the majority of the album follows is established.
Lyrically, City of Refuge hones in on a traditional country theme of immense heartbreak. Washburn, throughout the album, yearns for requited love. In “Chains”, she laments stagnation and her inability to better the situation with lines such as “Running out of time, standing still/Something’s gotta change, oh, nothing will.” Her feebleness is portrayed in “Ballad of Treason”, with the ashamed, repeating whispering of “I need you, I need you”. “Burn Thru” sheds light on the beloved’s perspective, chiming, “We all want something else.” Fortunately, the consistent betrayal of the upbeat, optimistic instrumentation prevents the songs from becoming too heavy.
Washburn’s banjo playing is the focal point of City of Refuge‘s composition, but it’s executed in a manner that pays homage to folk roots, but, by no means, is strictly folk music. The arrangements of sweeping fiddle alongside various guitars and dulcimer, especially on tracks such as “Chains” and the end of “Burn Thru”, are reminiscent of Owen Pallet’s or Sufjan Stevens’ poppy, whimsical compositions. Although a surprising, refreshing twist to Washburn’s previous works, a glance at the production notes reveals composer/producer Tucker Martine, whose previous clients include Stevens, and sense is made. This sharp, poignant orchestral presence is what moves this album to the indie pop genre as opposed to folk, and it does so very efficiently.
Albeit the differentiating factor between Washburn’s back catalog, the poppy, eclectic instrumentation, after awhile, begins to outshine her vocal performance. The cliched ‘too much of a good thing’ idiom comes to mind – the sometimes seemingly out-of-place guitar or a particularly moving violin solo detract from the voice, a key component in this field of music. Washburn’s warm vocals are undoubtedly in-pitch and consistently strong, they just become a bit monotonous. That is, until “Divine Bell” (pronounced proudly with a Southern accent as ‘dee-vine’). An incredibly out of place throwback to traditional folk/bluegrass track, this song undos the pop pretense of the rest of the album. It’s refreshing in its emotive vocal performance and twang, and suggests that in trying so hard to create a pop album, Washburn lost track of her spark.
City of Refuge, as a pop album, is a nice listen, but nothing earth-shattering. City of Refuge, as a departure from a successful back catalog and an experiment, though, succeeds. The tracks are all enjoyable and sonically interesting. The collaborators’ influences are visible, but not dominant, as Washburn’s banjo remains central, striking a nice balance. Some fine tuning and vocal variation could make for a stellar follow-up to these new genre endeavors, but a return to her classics, for this immensely talented artist, would be equally as appreciated.