Eliza Gilkyson,
Beautiful World
(Red House, 2008)

Eliza Gilkyson is often spoken of in the same breath as Lucinda Williams. It's true they're both rooted, literate singer-songwriters and they're close to the same age, but they're far from identical.

For one thing, blues, a frequent reference in Williams' music, is a minor presence in Gilkyson's sound. Unlike Williams, Gilkyson is politically outspoken, so much so that her "Man of God" -- released long before the Current Resident's approval ratings were languishing in the mid-20s and at a time when many judged him the Great War Leader -- sparked death threats from unappreciative listeners; appearing on her 2005 Paradise Hotel, it's among the most effective and pointed of the new topical-protest songs. Another Gilkyson virtue is that her writing is of more consistent quality -- it's certainly less self-absorbed -- than Williams'.

Beautiful World departs slightly from Gilkyson's earlier Red House CDs in having -- at least on some cuts -- a fuller pop-style production. At first I found the fatter sound distracting, but on third or fourth listening it sort of faded out of my hearing. It neither particularly adds to nor subtracts from the quality of her vocal and compositional skills. It's there, I presume, to encourage more adult-radio play. If you haven't heard Gilkyson before and would like a one-stop guide to what she ordinarily sounds like, there's her recent, splendid live album Your Town Tonight, which I reviewed in this space on 15 September 2007, highlighting earlier songs cast in mostly acoustic folk-rock arrangements.

The new production works most effectively on straight-out rockers such as "Dream Lover" and "Runaway Train." The former, which takes its title from an amiable, bubble-gummish pop tune written by Bobby Darin (a 1961 hit for Johnny Burnette), has nothing to do with either innocent dreams or true love. It's about a teenage runaway who becomes a porn star: "I'm your dream lover / Better than a one night stand / Dream lover / As close as the palm of your hand." Powerful and unsettling, it's not quite like any song I've heard, and emblematic of Gilkyson's distinctive creative vision and -- unpreachy -- moral seriousness.

Awash in gloomy yet lovely atmospheric sounds, the title song addresses a subject rarely approached in secular music: original sin: "Beautiful world intricate web of design... / Billions of years come down to a point in time / Setting the stage for the folly of man." Sin in its current, political manifestation figures in the sarcastic "The Party's Over" and the nervously hopeful "Great Correction," both dealing with the close of a very dark era in the American saga. Presumably, the "Great Correction" begins on Nov. 4.

review by
Jerome Clark

7 June 2008

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