SONG OF THE TRAVELING DAUGHTER
What a long, strange trip it's been for Abigail Washburn. Born in Illinois and raised for a spell in Gaithersburg, Washburn spent her early adulthood in China, where all things American took on new resonance and she bought a banjo.
Back in the States she played with the all-female string band Uncle Earl, and while the ensemble made quality music, few heard them. At the moment Washburn is on her own, writing and singing her own compositions structured around her 1889 gut-string banjo and Ben Sollee's cello. Members of the group Blue Merle, among others, help out as well.
The tunes have an antique quality, made all the more distinctive by low-key vocals and lyrics so old-sounding they seem to have a 78 rpm crackle. "Eve Stole the Apple," "Sometimes" and "Rockabye Dixie" might as well be from the Civil War era.
If you want to hear something really different -- and disconcerting, in a pleasant way -- give a listen to the title track, an up-tempo banjo-and-fiddle reel with the words sung in Chinese (the English translation is provided in the liner notes). "The Lost Lamb," a plaintive ballad gliding on cello, is also sung in Chinese.
Clearly there's a Bela Fleck influence in the patient, unbluegrasslike clawhammer style of banjo, and indeed Fleck is co-producer of the disc, with Reid Scelza.
-- Buzz McClain
At first listen, on the song "Honey," Thomas Bartlett's voice is almost impossibly mannered. He's doing that Nick Drake thing where you spread your mouth wide and murmur through nearly closed teeth, and his high school drama teacher must wince every time he lets his voice drop, at the ends of lines, below its already barely audible threshold. But if the vocals don't send you fleeing to listen to some loud, articulate extrovert, you'll be rewarded by a well-thought-out, well-put-together debut.
Bartlett, the Doveman frontman who also writes a music column for the online magazine Salon.com, brings his keyboard skills to full use on "The Acrobat," squeezing every possible emotional connotation out of piano, harmonium, pump organ and Wurlitzer. The piano skitters whimsically all over "Cities." The harmonium keeps the persistent, forward rhythm of "Teacup," a psychedelic groover with characteristically melancholy lyrics ("If you walk away this teacup heart will break").
The rest of the group is adept at adding complexity and color to this gray portfolio. Sam Amidon proves that a banjo needn't play a breakdown to evoke the pain of a breakdown. Peter Ecklund's cornet goes jazzy on "House," but on "Boy + Angel" it invades, sporadically, like a harbinger of the apocalypse. It's easier to admire this effort than revel in it as something effortless; Bartlett's drowsy vocals suggest he's trapped in some kind of dream that we, as outsiders, can only intermittently experience for ourselves.
-- Pamela Murray Winters