In the context of popular music, traditional folk will probably always be a going concern. Its fresh, naturalistic beauty has made it a true songwriter’s craft, with a certain focus on lyricism and tact – and has allowed people like Abigail Washburn to found a career.
Washburn has been involved in the still-strong American old-time scene for about a decade, sticking mainly to her clawhammer banjo and performing in greater entities like Uncle Earl and Sparrow Quartet. City Of Refuge is her second thoroughly solo effort, and it works for being simply well-performed and well-written.
Washburn’s voice is a delicate husk, hollowed out in an earthy tremor, and occasionally sounding quite frail – it’s a perfect pairing to City Of Refuge’s predominately empty arrangements. The songs are frigidly minimal, bringing to mind the northern regions that seem to be her primary influences.
The record’s longest song, Dreams Of Nectar, is completely unadorned, lurking along in a dreary, coldblooded skulk – seasick horns and warbled guitars guiding its path. Battle Of Treason returns Washburn to her sprightly quartet roots, each musician carefully focused on their instrument. On Last Train and Bring Me My Queen she plays the role of a pure singer-songwriter, telling odd little stories over dampened acoustics and her crisp banjo. These quiet numbers make up the core of City Of Refuge, and it gives the album a certain reserved glow, reverberating with the wide-open power of pastoral landscapes.
To be fair, “reverberating with the wide-open power of pastoral landscapes” is a phrase that could be attributed to any number of folkies, and recent efforts by bands like The Civil Wars have well exceeded Washburn’s quiescent beauty in terms of studio glitz and general character. But there’s the occasional spot of experimental oddness to keep Abigail’s head above water. The reverb-soaked tumble before the metronomic Burn Thru sounds like an interlude taken from a No Age album, the choral a capella preceding closer Bright Morning Stars and the rustic field recordings of Prelude gives the record a sense of period-piece bookending. But beside that, City Of Refuge sticks to tradition.
Yet tradition suits the record well. Abigail Washburn isn’t in the business of rewriting a craft she indubitably and passionately adores; her traditionalism isn’t born out of a lack of resource or laziness, but simply a warm love for the music she’s playing. As such the folkie tales on City Of Refuge sound agreeably modern, her smoky voice and agile musicianship updating the techniques, but not the soul of her songs. It won’t be remembered for long, but in 40 minutes the album offers an amorous walk through a woman’s keen strength in a style of music that will never sound dated.