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Album Review

Drifting along on a banjo odyssey

January 10, 2011

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Abigail Washburn, the clawhammer banjo player and singer-songwriter, would seem to be steering her career with little use for a road map. She emerged in the early 2000s with the all-female string band Uncle Earl. She released a solo album a few years later, and then, on 2008’s “Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet,’’ she took a U-turn, joining forces with a coterie of accomplished acoustic musicians, including banjoist Béla Fleck. That album explored the unlikely, but beguiling, connections between old-time Americana and traditional Chinese poetry and folk songs.

Washburn’s latest offering is considerably more streamlined, but it’s no less engrossing. “City of Refuge’’ couches Washburn’s virtuosity — both as a singer and picker — in a contemporary context that’s equal parts indie folk, atmospheric twang, and rootsy pop. Working with producer Tucker Martine (whose credits include the Decemberists), Washburn fleshes out the songs as if they’re accompanying a movie playing in her head.

In fact, on first listen, “City of Refuge’’ comes off as untethered, drifting any which way the wind blows. But you soon realize there’s an arc to the storytelling, with all roads leading to “Dreams of Nectar,’’ a six-minute odyssey flush with transcendent interludes.

The focus isn’t squarely on ambience, though. A Celtic serenity guides the closing “Bright Morning Stars,’’ and Washburn steps up as a fiery preacher of sorts on “Divine Bell,’’ the album’s fleeting moment of traditional country gospel.

It probably wasn’t her intention, but Washburn ended up making a modern classic, a folk album for people who claim they don’t like a such thing. (Out tomorrow)

JAMES REED

ESSENTIAL “Dreams of Nectar’’