Eliza Gilkyson,
Roses at the End of Time
(Red House, 2011)

I hope -- futilely, no doubt -- never to hear another song that rhymes "moon" and "iTunes." It's right there in "Blue Moon Night," the opening cut on this, the latest from Austin-based singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson. I mention it for a couple of reasons: so that, one, you'll be forewarned, and two, it won't prompt you to abandon the disc then and there. This one gasp-inducing gaffe notwithstanding, Roses at the End of Time is as satisfying an album of modern folk music as you're likely to hear in 2011.

As her fans know, Eliza's father Terry Gilkyson composed early folk-pop hits, among them "Greenfields" (Brothers Four) and "Memories are Made of This" (Dean Martin). His daughter has written songs about her complicated relationship with him ("The Beauty Way," "Easy Rider"). Her brother Tony is also a folk-based songwriter. In fact, his impressive "Death in Arkansas" is Roses' most traditional-sounding cut, also its sole non-original.

If nobody would mistake any of the other songs here for a real, old-time folk song, it is important to observe that Eliza Gilkyson grew up a child of the 1950s/'60s revival, with broad knowledge of the music plus the revival's political sensibility. If not a "protest singer" as such, she has a frank, left-leaning point of view that she puts into eloquent, measured, non-sloganeering words. She's blunt enough, though, that she found herself the target of death threats for "Man of God," an unflattering portrait of a certain Texas-bred then-President. (You can hear it on her 2005 release Paradise Hotel.) On the current disc "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "Vayan al Norte" and "Once I Had a Home" (respectively, on the nation's sorry state, the suffering of illegal immigrants and -- I think -- homeless vets) address topical issues. The amusing "2153" lampoons fundamentalist America's loony, destructive obsession with end times.

But perhaps the album's highest point is "Belle of the Ball," eerie, disturbing and beautiful, concerning the unexpected death of a close friend and that friend's post-mortem appearance. One doesn't know if this is an account of a real-life experience -- however one interprets such things, perfectly sane and normal people do perceive what they believe to be apparitions -- or pure invention. Whatever its inspiration, it is an exceedingly rare kind of song: a secular meditation on the mystery at the divide between life and death. In another exquisite moment, there's "Midnight on Raton," a sequel to the late Townes Van Zandt's "Snowin' on Raton," from which she quotes a couple of lines. ("Snowin'" is one of about a dozen songs, I think, to make an effectively irrefutable case for Van Zandt as a great, not simply a more than ordinarily gifted, American songwriter.)

So why is Lucinda Williams, to whom Gilkyson is inevitably compared, famous when Gilkyson, the truer, more resonant artist, isn't? Like Williams', Gilkyson's work can be personal, but unlike Williams, her view of creative possibility does not begin and end with autobiography. In common with her other Red House releases, Roses boasts great melodies, drawing on folk with occasional shades of rock and pop, and sparkling arrangements. On top of that, she's a fabulous vocalist. And man, can she write. Just no more "moon/iTunes" is all I ask.

[ visit the artist's website ]

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 May 2011

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