Red Horse,
Red Horse
(Red House, 2010)

Not exactly a trio, certainly not a band, Red Horse consists of three prominent singer-songwriters long signed to the St. Paul-based Red House label. They are Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky. In fact, the dozen tracks were cut separately, with different musicians, in studios in Wisconsin (at Hudson near the border of Minnesota, where Gorka lives), Brooklyn (Kaplansky) and Austin (Gilkyson), with harmonies dropped subsequently into the mix. Perhaps the real novelty is to be found on the several tracks on which one artist performs a song composed by another.

The CD opens with the very early Neil Young song "I Am a Child," recorded by Gilkyson. This is not a choice I would have made -- the song seems to me of no compelling interest except possibly as evidence that Young wrote messy, sometimes incoherent lyrics even back when he was just another Buffalo Springfield -- but Gilkyson is so able an interpreter that maybe you won't notice. Another cover is Kaplansky's of the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger," done nicely but redundantly, given how often it's been recorded previously -- not least by the Olympian likes of Bill Monroe and Emmylou Harris.

Surely the standout among the covers is "Coshieville," a terrific song I can't believe I hadn't heard till now. It's a pleasure to be introduced to it, though, via Gorka's singing which boasts a quiet, confident command of both vocal technique and emotional truth. Better male vocalists on the current American folk scene are hard to find. About an itinerant laborer in mid-1950s Perthshire, "Coshieville" is the creation of the late Scots poet and folksinger Stuart McGregor.

The production focuses on the acoustic and unfussy, to happy effect. Seasoned pros, the three performers are very good at what they do, and the songs, both ones previously recorded in other versions and the one brand-new composition, Gorka's "If These Walls Could Talk," are uniformly strong, representing the artists' fullest-bodied work. Since these are grownups, there is no romantic false talk, even in the ordinarily cliche-intensive positive love song. As evidence of that, I would turn your ear to Kaplansky's reading of Gilkyson's "Sanctuary" and Gilkyson's of her own "Walk Away from Love."

Put this CD on just about anywhere in the proceedings, and you'll hear something striking. In an era of instantly disposable songwriting, Red Horse is the singer-songwriter trade doing what it too often fails to do: telling stories and making melodies for the long ride.

Be sure to check out our reviews of previous albums from these artists: Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky.

review by
Jerome Clark

21 August 2010

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