Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet – Self-Titled (Nettwerk)

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MP3: Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet – Kangding Qingge (Old Timey Dance Party)

It is rare to find a musician that has a transformative journey, and manages to maturely incorporate de novo influence without awkwardly losing their own identity.  Abigail Washburn manages to balance her myriad influences nearly perfectly, the two most odd bed-fellows being American and Chinese folk.  Washburn began her long-standing love of Chinese culture and music during a life-shaping trip to China when she was only 18.  She frequently cites this trip as inspiration for her own explorations in American culture and tradition.

This, only her sophomore album, is a jaw-dropping manifesto on the universal language and nature of music, possessing a truly unique sound.  To say that there is a seamless integration of all Washburn’s influences into each track is a gross-understatement, bordering on disservice.  The opening volley provides a good primer for the sounds of the album.  Entitled “Overture,” it is just that: an opening…a beautiful, broad introduction.  A sweeping medley of the musical styles and landscape that Washburn explores over the course of the album, peppered with strains and themes from every track.

The tumult of the strings, haunting cello strikes punctated by frenzied banjo and violin runs, provides a stirring foundation for the deep and soulful blues vocals on the ominous “Strange Things.”  “Great Big Wall in China” is a compelling narrative, where Washburn takes the role of bard in the tradition of American folk while the music smoothly moves from chamber-like string ensemble to a folk-dance 6/8 stride to toccata and back again.  “Taiyang Chulai” shines as one of the albums most effusive tracks, with  characteristically Asian warbling and tremolo of the mandolin and vocals reminiscent of poetry or prose set to music.  “Banjo Pickin Girl” is a great re-purposing of Doc Watson’s “Lonesome Road Blues,” featuring some blisteringly-fast clawhammer banjo picking and a heavy helping of preciousness.  “Sugar and Pie” opens as if a classical recital or study in tonality before bursting into some toe-tapping old-time melodies.

One of my favorite tracks is the nautical knavery of “Captain,” delivered with a chilling precision dipping in and out of haunting, dissonant intervals.  The track deftly builds a spectacular tension that is never completely dissipated.

“Kangding Qingge (Old Timey Dance Party)” is the album’s crowning achievement, successfully fusing a groove that draws equally from blues and old-timey music (but could just as easily fit right in with any of today’s folk-influenced indie giants) with Mandarin Chinese vocals and brilliant banjo picking that simultaneously oozes technical and stylistic prowess.

Other than the impressive music, the most remarkable aspect of the album is Washburn’s voice.  The definition of versatility, it’s stunning how facile her transitions are from soaring Chinese operatic vocals (tracks sung entirely in Mandarin Chinese are remarkably natural and fluid) to blues-n-soul croon, from the distinct non-resonant vocal style of Chinese singers to the resonant, harmonic singing of the West.  The influence of Chinese style on her vocals is apparent, as she takes great care in inflecting each note precisely and perfectly to convey the exact mood she is picturing.  The spectrum of moods and emotions she can convey with her vocals is astonishing, and testament to the utility of fusing both Western and Eastern style.

The other aspect of this album that truly soars is the quality of the players.  When you lump the mind-boggling talents of Abigail Washburn (banjo and voice), Béla Fleck (banjo, interviewed earlier this year), Casey Driessen (violin), and Ben Sollee (cello) together, you can’t help but come up aces.  The litheness of all the strings provide for some fantastic contrapuntal passages, both fugal and canonical, throughout the album.

I really can’t praise this album more highly.  It is truly an opus for Washburn, and proudly displays her unique musical vision and journey.

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3 Responses to “Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet – Self-Titled (Nettwerk)”

  1. [...] review of Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet’s self-titled album at Aural States. One of my [...]

  2. Alex Mudge says:

    Goddamn this is good. Cello makes everything better.

  3. LD says:

    I agree, cello does make everything better. This record is phenomenal, a real musical achievement. I didn’t think you could fuse Chinese & American folk and actually make it sound good.

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