City of Refuge
Label: Asthmatic Kitty
City of Refuge is what you would expect to crackle through an AM radio as you drive alone through a Western desert. Recorded in a mom and pop motel in Middle-of-Nowhere, Nevada, the album plays like the swan song of an incredulous sinner facing the light at the end of the tunnel, still hoping there’s time for redemption. There isn’t. As the guitars twang sharply, the listener learns to resign to the encompassing bleakness and overwhelming hopelessness that a City of Refuge simply isn’t attainable in this life, and probably absent from the next as well.
The opening song “Celestial Shore” is by far the most innocent. The simple guitar melody feels as familiar as “Yankee Doodle,” and then a shimmering second guitar enters, introducing illuminating wonder to an album still full of possibility. But the echoing second track “High Plain 1” immediately curtails that childlike awe. A barren electric guitar sputters themeless chords through heavy delay like distant smoke signals caught in the wind and impossible to translate. And it is from that desolation City of Refuge begins to take shape.
“The Destroyer,” “Prettiest Chain” and “Refuge 1” all follow the downward spiral, adding pleading vocals and muddy, dragging upright bass. “The Quiet” might be the most unnerving track, sounding like a once bouncy country song, now dissolved into weary slow motion bluegrass. A surprisingly uplifting track “Glory B” punctuates the sadness featuring the first acoustic guitar of the album. The gospel hymn is like being born again; all sins are forgiven and hope is on the horizon. “I’ll Fly Away” reaffirms that hope and seems to suggest that maybe it’s never too late for life to change. But true sinners can never stay clean for long and the album sinks back into the mire and refuses to come out again.
Spaghetti Western guitars and suicidal pleas are unrelenting, as if life is too long and the drinks never strong enough. The album’s final track “After The Fall” is the only attempt at a vocal melody and a rhyme scheme. The lyrics lament the end, “If I had known where we were going / I might not have gone at all / There was no way of knowing / So soon after the fall” while it was only three tracks ago that “Shadow Valley” declared “As long as I’ve lived I’ve wanted to die.”
With big room sounds and stark arrangements, City of Refuge is as choking, vacant and desperate as a Cormac McCarthy novel. No characters are ever named and the action exists without question or insight. The album feels more genuine than it feels full. Aside from the occasional twinkling right-handed piano line and gurgling upright bass clatter, vocals and guitar make up nearly every track. What remains an unfortunate addition to the lawless appeal of City of Refuge is the presence of digital swells and electronic fuzz. “High Plain 2” is nothing short of an anachronism and betrays the live, wandering direction of the other fourteen tracks.
There is no question though that City of Refuge is an incredibly earnest and impressive album. The tracks resonate a warm vinyl quality enthusiasts could swear by. and every track brings to life a new image, even though only eight tracks feature vocals. Above all, the album is brave. From the recording location to the guitar tones, this kind of feeling is almost completely unheard of in music today. It’s a complicated story told as simply as possible, and a death rattle that invites you to do it all over again.
by Brian Loeper