Eliza Gilkyson,
Your Town Tonight
(Red House, 2007)

Eliza Gilkyson has been having a good run with a sympathetic record label. By my count this is her fifth CD for the St. Paul-based Red House, and I happily recommend all of its predecessors. Even so, Your Town Tonight -- markedly more engaging than your average live recording -- has a particular warmth and immediacy that testify to Gilkyson's performing skills and personal charisma. If you're looking for a place to start with this exceptional folk-rock singer-songwriter, it's here.

Most of the cuts are revisited originals, all strong songs, but the inclusion of covers is an especially pleasing touch. She boldly tackles Bob Dylan's cryptic "Jokerman" -- a song (it's on Dylan's Infidels, from 1983) that would intimidate most would-be interpreters -- and renders it not only accessible but austerely beautiful, without ever dragging down its impressive intelligence quotient. Even more of a revelation is "Green Fields," composed by her father Terry Gilkyson (long ago, a commercially successful folk-pop writer of "Memories Are Made of This," "Marianne" and more). In 1962 "Green Fields" was a hit for the Brothers Four, one of the now-obscure white-bread outfits that proliferated in the Kingston Trio's wake. Even then, long before I was the musical sophisticate I pretend to be these days, it struck me as a decent song that deserved better. Eliza Gilkyson's version dazzles, stuns and affords "Green Fields" a broader range of meaning -- as, for example, environmental fable -- which her father must surely have had in mind.

Her father (who died in 1999) seems much in his daughter's mind. He figures in her own songs "Beauty Way" (written with Mark Andes) and "Easy Rider" (after her father's 1950s folk group, the Easy Riders). At once an affectionate tribute and a coolly unsentimental remembrance, "Rider" is set to a riveting melody that feels like an echo of an older folk ballad. Gilkyson is not, however, any sort of self-absorbed artist. Like the 1960s balladeers who are her proximate inspiration, she holds to a passionate political sensibility -- in her case compassionate, not self-righteous -- expressed in elegant, dark-hued vocals in "Requiem" and the astonishing "Tender Mercies." (Her George W. Bush blues, the unambiguously unadmiring "Man of God," is not to be found on Your Town. It's my favorite protest song of the legion inspired by the present regime; if you're interested, you'll find it on her 2005 release Paradise Hotel.)

Gilkyson's extraordinarily adept four-man band accompanies her through most of this. Respecting her for the acoustic musician she is, her companions resist all temptation to push her into preening rock-out.

How good is Eliza Gilkyson? I speak, naturally, only for myself when I say that I'd rather listen to her than to Lucinda Williams. And I like Lucinda Williams.

review by
Jerome Clark

15 September 2007

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