Eliza Gilkyson,
The Nocturne Diaries
(Red House, 2014)

Though she lives in Austin, singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson could as easily hail from any place in America's urban landscape. Which is to say there's neither country music nor Texas chauvinism in her approach. At the same time, unlike many of her contemporaries in the trade, she's too sharp to come across as precious or self-absorbed. Hers is a mature sensibility, linked to an arguably genetic talent carried from her late father Terry Gilkyson, who was a figure in the mid-century folk revival as performer and composer (hits for his trio, the Easy Riders ["Marianne"], and for others ["Memories are Made of This," Dean Martin, and "Greenfields," Brothers Four]).

The Nocturne Diaries is Gilkyson's seventh solo album for Red House. Those of you who have heard some or all of the others will know what to expect, namely singing and writing of a high order set in a modern folk style. The subjects, if sometimes personal, speak convincingly to listeners' life experiences, especially to those who have been around long enough to have weathered a respectable number of them. Gilkyson is fearless enough to take on disturbing subjects -- here, child abuse ("Not My Home") and a youth's demented ruminations as he contemplates embarking on a shooting rampage ("An American Boy") -- while somehow making the songs listenable and even affecting in their pathos.

Other cuts touch on Gilkyson's political and environmental concerns unpreachily but effectively. It isn't quite accurate to call her a topical or a protest singer, but few handle these themes so eloquently. Unlike a number of current "folk" singers who traffic in their own material, Gilkyson knows real -- in other words, traditional -- folk music; after all, she grew up with it. She covers her father's well-crafted hobo ballad "Fast Freight" (in an arrangement quite different from the folk-pop of the original) and pokes fun at herself on the wry "Eliza Jane," borrowing the title and refrain of the 19th-century minstrel song. "Touchstone" has the feeling of a Carter Family tune with a century-later point of view.

The production, by Gilkyson and her son Cisco Ryder (who also serves in her band), ranges from stringband sounds to electronic textures suited to the occasion. Her vocals, as always, are a marvel of emotional precision and intelligence. A new album, her first solo effort since Roses at the End of Time, which I reviewed here on 14 May 2011, is something to be welcomed. As ever Gilkyson does not disappoint.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 February 2014

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