Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge

For an artist that previously combined bluegrass and traditional Chinese music, it would seem that no territory is beyond reach. With her third album, though, Abigail Washburn experiments with something even more foreign to her than the eastern land where she studied: pop music.

City of Refuge stays true to Washburn’s old-time sound, but this time with more pop hooks and melodic sensibility. Partly due to the influence of co-writer and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch, the album is as concerned with indie pop grooves as with the gritty roots of old-time music. The change suits Washburn, whose clawhammer banjo style is able to take a back seat to the storytelling.

The stories in City of Refuge are of despair, whether it’s the immigrant in “Dreams of Nectar” trying to adapt to a new land or the rich girl in the title track trying to find happiness as her family’s pristine façade crumbles. On the latter, Washburn vents that “they never ask if the secrets pull me under,” her voice a raspy whisper (think of a female Ray LaMontagne). Washburn contrasts the despair with rare moments of hope, such as in the upbeat bluegrass of “Divine Bell,” where she eagerly anticipates the Second Coming.

With the pop hooks of “Chains” and “Burn Through,” City of Refuge is Washburn’s most accessible album to date. Instead of watering down the music, as is often the case, the new ear for melody puts more of a focus on the lyrics – none of which are in Mandarin this time – and Washburn’s vocals. Two tracks, including the closing “Bright Morning Stars,” are largely a cappella, allowing Washburn’s haunting voice, harmonizing with Welch, to carry the song. In “Chains,” Washburn sings that “something’s gotta change or nothing will.” On City of Refuge, Washburn takes that as a rallying cry and this change is for the better.


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