First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2008, Volume 15, #8
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed August 20, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
On her latest effort Beautiful World, Eliza Gilkyson explores many of the same themes as she did on Paradise Hotel, her breakthrough endeavor from 2005, with one striking difference. This time, she has toned down the darker hues of her work to reveal a collection of songs that springs to life in its own blazing, Technicolor, radio-friendly way. While Beautiful World doesnít contain a career-defining number like Paradise Hotelís Man of God, Gilkyson largely has created an immensely likeable album that is full of solid and interesting singles with a lot of potential.
From the outset, Gilkysonís career has been an interesting one. The daughter of acclaimed songwriter Terry Gilkyson ó whose credits include compositions penned for Dean Martin and Johnny Cash as well as contributions to Disney films such as The Jungle Book ó she grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by people in the music industry. As a young adult, she dropped off the mainstream radar to embrace an alternative lifestyle in New Mexico, where she raised a family and developed her voice. Ironically, her earliest acclaim came as a new age performer via her collaborations with Swiss harpist and atmospheric composer Andreas Vollenweider in the late 1980s. After moving from Europe back to the U.S., she signed with the roots-oriented label Red House Records, for which she now has recorded seven albums.
With her rough-hewn voice and love of traditional, acoustic-flavored country arrangements, Gilkyson often sounds quite a bit like Lucinda Williams. A closer inspection, however, reveals that there are considerable differences between how these talented women approach their work. Both artists primarily write songs about love and spirituality, but none of Williamsí pathos and self-destructive bent is evident in Gilkysonís new material. While Williams has a tendency to adhere to the mythology of sex, drugs, and rock ínĎ roll ó almost to the point of embarrassment ó Gilkyson appears committed to living as an adult in a world full of grown-up problems.
Gilkyson often is pigeonholed in the press as a Christian performer, and itís true that many of her songs are filled with Biblical imagery and ideas. Like Bruce Cockburn and Victoria Williams, however, her spirituality gives context and language to struggles that every thinking and feeling person must encounter at one point or another during their lives. Selections such as Great Correction and Beautiful World demonstrate how deftly Gilkyson merges religious concepts with her progressive political beliefs without sacrificing the quality of her art.
There are moments when the glimpses of hellfire and brimstone that surface in Gilkysonís lyrics might make non-Christians a little uncomfortable. Yet, the imagery she employs is appropriate for delivering her message. She is, after all, borrowing from a tradition upon which great musicians from Mahalia Jackson to Bob Dylan have drawn in order to create some of their finest artistic works. Gilkysonís spirituality is never oppressive or overbearing; it serves only to create a perspective from which she views the world and its problems.
Throughout Beautiful World, Gilkysonís approach works almost without fail. Because so many American folk and country tunes evolved from spirituals and hymns, the album exudes a sense of timelessness that is very appealing. The opening cut Emerald Street is especially catchy, and its simple lyrics, crisp guitars, and lovely melody combine to elevate Gilkysonís stunning vocals for a blissful four minutes before it segues into the equally delightful Wildwood Spring.
In fact, the only track on Beautiful World that isnít entirely successful is the apocalyptic Runaway Train. Here, Gilkysonís lyrics often veer into clichť as images from This Train ó the old blues classic that was popularized by Leadbelly ó and Blind Willie McTellís Broke Down Engine mar an otherwise interesting concept. Similarly, Unsustainable is witty and wonderfully sung, but because the chorus sounds so much like Willie Nelsonís Crazy, it is impossible to hear the song fully and appreciate it on its own merit.
In the end, Beautiful World is an extremely affable album. The production is bright and clean, and Gilkysonís vocals as well as her contributions on dobro and guitar are excellent. In addition, all of the musicians whom she recruited for the album ó from guitarist David Grissom to fiddler Elana James (from Hot Club of Cowtown) ó give spirited performances that raise the entire affair to a higher level. Although it would have been nice if she had taken a few more risks with her arrangements and allowed her collaborators more room to maneuver, itís clear that this is not a direction that Gilkyson wanted to take. Beautiful World was designed to be accessible without compromising her artistic integrity. From this perspective, it is a tremendous success, and it ought to win many new fans for Gilkyson. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Beautiful World is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box