“City of Refuge” begins with the simple statement, “I got a mother, I got a father.” Then it gets weird.
Diamond lace and stark white collar
She looks good, he makes the dollars
And I’m free to do what I wanna
What does she wanna do? Run, run, run.
Momma’s got a lover, poppa thinks he’s sober
Pray on my knees the clouds keep rolling over
Torn diamond lace, booze on his collar
They never ask if the secrets pull me under
While it should be momma and poppa who seek salvation in the city of refuge, it is the girl who sings “I gotta run” to that place “where everyone is made new / Where our burdens lay in the town where we came from.”
She’ll find a crowd ahead of her. Abigail Washburn’s 2011 album City of Refuge (Rounder Records) is full of people shaking off chains, following train tracks, hitching rides to Juneau, or headed down the frontage road off Highway 3. By the record’s end they are all gathered around “God’s great Divine Bell” singing the old hymn “Bright Morning Stars.” The eight songs that suggest the stories of how they got there—and what set them running—are fascinating for their concision, their attitude, their love of life and the unknown, and especially for their sound.
Washburn is a hushed, harsh vocalist and clawhammer banjo player who leads the acoustic Sparrow Quartet. She is fluent in Chinese and entered the world with her Asian Studies degree intending to study law in Beijing, but found the music there so interesting that she forged a path as something of a folklorist and pop singer. Her first solo album, the old-timey Song of the Traveling Daughter (Nettwerk Records, 2005), included songs in Chinese and an instrumental medley of American and Chinese folk tunes. These influences follow her into the city of refuge where she makes music with members of the Turtle Island Quartet, My Morning Jacket, the Decemberists, and Old Crow Medicine Show, along with guitarist Bill Frisell and some of her regular Chinese collaborators. This ain’t bluegrass. The sound most evokes Brian Wilson Presents Smile—the 2004 through-performance of that now officially-released lost album—with Mongolian melodic touches.
The recording opens and closes with the sounds of real seekers of refuge, those of children affected by the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, from field recordings Washburn made herself. But in that imagined city, the sad rich girl sings, there is a mother and there is a father.
Adam’s on the roof and Eve is in the gutter
Eden’s on the far side where the circle started
To run with the Gods you gotta run harder
And so she keeps running. “She’s looking for something,” a second voice sings. “She’s spinning and circling.” This voice is cleaner, purer, a little less wary. “She’s reckless, she’s pining, and she’s lost, lost, lost.”
That second voice belongs to another woman whose third album also came out in 2011, and whose music runs at a comparable gait. Alela Diane & Wild Divine (Rough Trade) presents a few more wandering souls and disappointed lovers headed toward the city of refuge.
The girl in “Desire,” who in the morning is dressed for night, “looking like it’s 1995,” is the most noticeable, since this is the only song of the ten that Alela sings in third-person. Elsewhere she sings little of her own desire, but the lost one in this 2:15 vignette hearkens to a sinister signal intent upon detouring her from her destination: “D.E.S.I.R.E. Can you hear it calling?” “It’s hard to help yourself when you don’t know where to begin,” Alela sings on her opener “To Begin”:
It’s the devil
It’s the bull
It’s the black of night
In your head—in your head!
Oh those voices in our heads spreading ignorance. They tell us where we belong and where we don’t, where we’ll be accepted and where we won’t. In “Burn Thru,” Washburn’s runner shouts back at those voices, now in hot pursuit, “I’m not going down like you want me to.” The immigrant in “Dreams of Nectar” believes the voices that say she is free, only to find herself tired and worn in “a land of fertile lies.” It is those same voices that draw Alela’s desire-ridden brunette into “wild flight.”
There’s nothing very wild about Wild Divine, Alela’s backing band; these cats, led by her father and her husband, are strictly accompanists. Their contributions are pleasurable, but there is no tension, nothing left unresolved. Alela didn’t need to form a band; she needs to meet a band. We should hope for some chance encounter with a truly wild gypsy group, or a producer’s crazy match-up with some slashing, crashing bunch of guitar honchos looking for a divine good time. Alela gives thanks to “the love of life and the unknown” in her CD’s booklet, but that unknown is a pretty known one. She neither runs with the gods nor runs hard. A challenging collaboration with a working band would force some real unknown into her music, even some D.E.S.I.R.E., anything to keep her music from once again sounding so familiar, so homey, so safe.
The album’s last song, “Rising Greatness,” begins with the too-fitting repeated lines, “At the end of the day / The song I sing remains the same.” She follows this admission with an even more insightful observation, that while another year has gone and she is older, “I’ve never been so young anyway.” Therein lies her appeal and a way to view the sameness of her music. Alela Diane has been a classic “old soul” since she sounded like that “long gone grandma” collecting pieces of string with a finger-wagging “I’ll have you know” on The Pirate’s Gospel (Holocene Music), her debut release in 2006. The album cover even featured doilies. On that album, produced by her father Tom Menig, the girl’s own acoustic guitar presented every song; occasional bass, slide banjo, and singing friends merely enhanced the tracks. This was California country music from Nevada City, music of sand and dirt and ocean and sky and forests and fields and leaves and weeds and rocks and bones and tired feet. Her knack for nature imagery is as sure as her eye for nature photography. Her voice was not mournful, but it was plaintive—and pretty. Her simple alto did not suggest girlishness or rampant naïveté, though her lyrics sometimes did.
This older-than-her-years tone was perfected on To Be Still (Rough Trade, 2009), an album that earned its “Folk” genre designation while suggesting something more. Perhaps, then, Alela Diane & Wild Divine is meant to be a “Rock” album. The detailed nature imagery so abundant on its predecessors has been trimmed back to make room for more general writing. Alela plays on only half the songs, instead she acts as lead vocalist against the backdrop of guitars/bass/drums/keys and something for color, say a pedal steel or mandolin. Those vocals, once so lightly plaintive, are here just plain—and predictable. If there is another note to hit in her descent, she’ll hit it; if there is an expected vocal gesture to fit in before its end, she’ll fit it in. And her favorite vocal gesture, a flipping of words or line-endings into a hillbilly sigh, made aural sense when there was less going on; here, amidst such full arrangements, it smacks of affectation.
In the books of Numbers and Joshua, a city of refuge—the destination for any “manslayer”—was less a place of acceptance than a place one had better stay having been received. To assure his safety, a killer had to remain in his sanctuary until the death of the high priest who allowed him within its gates. If he left any sooner, any man could take his life and not be guilty of manslaughter, “because he should have remained in his city of refuge.”
The necessity of waiting, of staying where one belongs, settles both these albums. “This world’s gone wrong and it won’t be long ‘til man must fall,” sings Washburn with conviction. The gospel twang of her runners asks, “How loud must be the sound to turn this world around,” as they await the ringing of that heavenly instrument. Then “[they’ll] pay no mind to that earthly chime when [they] hear that Divine Bell.” Meanwhile, Alela Diane signs off from her corner of the world with the warning, “There is danger in what we know.” But there is good, too, she reminds us—and everyone fleeing for a city of refuge—“there is good / there is good / there is still good.”
J. D. Buhl extends great thanks to Rebecca Soo, Casady School Class of 2015, for serving as copyeditor on this piece.