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Album review: Abigail Washburn's 'City of Refuge'

January 10, 2011 |  6:05 pm

Abigal_Wash_240_ So much folk and bluegrass is about evoking a time or a region gone by, but Abigail Washburn’s latest examines the lost country of the broken heart. Her past albums pulled pristine Americana and keening Chinese balladry (which Washburn often sang in Mandarin) together. On “City of Refuge,” however, the language is English and her sounds and longings are personal.

From the title track on, Washburn’s travels are almost entirely internal — its story of an emotionally dead home is punctuated by a young daughter who ponders, “Under white sheets where all I do is wonder / When I’m gonna run to the city of refuge.” The minimalist banjo workout “Corner Girl” seems to find that comfort in a curious other and the bleary horns on “Dreams of Nectar” drip with that fulfilled longing.

Her modestly incendiary instrumental prowess needs no help, but she gets perfectly understated assists from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and members of the Decemberists and My Morning Jacket. Though fans of her exotica may miss her outlining connections between Earl Scruggs and Chinese pipa standards, “City of Refuge” is the best kind of crossover — one that anyone can find comfort in.

—August Brown

Abigail Washburn
“City of Refuge”
Rounder Records
Three stars (Out of four)