Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Abigail Washburn - Songs of the Traveling Daughter

One of my residents asked me once how I find the odd bands I listen to. I couldn't really give her a straight answer, but I do know how I found this one. I was taking a study break, wandering the aisles of my local Barnes and Noble (not exactly the best place to pick up obscure music, I'll grant) and this cover caught my eye.

One of the great things about Barnes and Noble is being able to listen to CDs before you buy them, and it didn't take more than a short listen to be intrigued.

Abigail plays banjo in the old frailing style. She also sings, and has a pleasantly distinctive voice. And though in saying it I worry that I am repeating myself she does sound a bit like Emmylou Harris at times. However, this is almost never a bad thing, and Abigail's style is different enough that she does not sound derivative. Indeed, it would be difficult to sound derivative here, for what sets her apart from being just another old-time singer (aside from her great talent) is the fact that two of her songs are sung in Chinese. Oddly enough, it works.

She's also managed to attract some serious talent to back her up here. Bela Fleck plays banjo on several songs, and though he isn't credited on this album, Tim O'Brien played on her first EP. That's some serious bluegrass firepower. When (as far as I can tell) it is just Abigail playing, her banjo is competent, and though not displaying the complicated virtuosity of Doc Watson or Adam Hurt, it is solid.

Overall, the album is a great listen, with tearjerker ballads, gospel, and blues mixed together. "Rockabye Dixie" is an incredible lullaby. The Chinese pieces come late on the album. One is a bluegrass song translated into Chinese, and another is an original inspired by an old Chinese poem. Since speaking Chinese is not one of my skills, I can't judge the merits of Miss Washburn's linguistic abilities, but the songs sound great. Song of the Traveling Daughter, the title track, starts out like a ballad, but becomes a barnburner by the end. The Lost Lamb, the other Chinese track, would not be out of place on the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack. It's just her voice with a solo cello, and as I listened to it, I was reminded of the Xinxiang desert scenes in that movie.

The only minor quibble is that on at least one song, "A Single Drop of Honey", Miss Washburn has written the melody outside her range, and the strain to reach certain notes is distracting. Relatively minor, but it keeps the album from being perfect.

Still, she will be in concert near here soon, and I plan on taking in the show.

4/5 stars


medstudentitis said...

I wasn't expecting the chinese thing haha, I'll have to check it out.

zhoen said...

Going to go listen to the NPR interview when D is done playing the Jon Stewart Show.

iTunes also allows (limited) pre listening.

All Songs Considered is a great source for new music.

Thanks for the tip. Cool.

Nathan said...

medstudentitis - I wasn't either when I picked up the album. But you should.

zhoen - I just listed to the NPR interview, it's got some great excerpts from her stuff. Let me know what you think.