A Review of the Eliza Gilkyson CD
"Land Of Milk And Honey"

"Land Of Milk And Honey"
by Eliza Gilkyson

(Red House Records RHR CD 174)
Copyright 2004
Red House Records
P.O. Box 4044
St. Paul, MN 55104

This review is written by Dai Woosnam, daigress@hotmail.com, 5/05

This has been the year when Eliza has made the breakthrough in the UK from being a cult performer whose work was known only to the elite of the British folk/country cognoscenti to becoming a name that is now knocking on the door of the successful mainstream. A tour of the British Isles in May 2005 has helped consolidate this growing reputation.

This is her third album on Red House Records, and these follow 5 previous ones made between 1987-1999. Will this be the CD that makes the breakthrough?

I am not entirely sure, but the signs are promising. The album kicks off with “Hiway 9” (with Slaid Cleaves being the first of several celebs who give assistance on the harmony vocals): this is her take on the Iraq War.

The song does not quite live up to its very strong opening stanza: it has immediate impact. Just you try this on for size:

“Well the white god said to the little man/We're gonna fulfil Scripture to the Holy Land/Between the Tigris and Euphrates it's a lot like hell/Gonna liberate people and the O.I.L.”

Now that is fine writing indeed. But having started with such a whoosh, the song quickly becomes a more veiled attack, not exactly going for the throat: and indeed, so laid-back is her vocal, the fact is that unless you are listening hard for the lyric, it might pass you by that this is indeed a protest song. Personally, I'd have liked her to show the kind of concentrated “frankness” here that she shows later on in tracks like “Ballad of Yvonne Johnston”, but that said, she hits the target well enough. One can safely say that Halliburton will not be adopting it as their company song!

The next track of note is track 3. This tells the tale of a guy who burned the candle at both ends. As a song, I guess it just about passes muster: but it had an extra element for me, since the album is dedicated to the late much-lamented singer-songwriter Al Grierson, a talent of whom I regret to say I know insufficient. And since the song refers to the character as “Big Al”, I listened to the lyrics trying to match the data outlined to the little bit I knew about the late Canadian artiste.

This probably made the song more interesting fare than I'd otherwise have found it. (For the record, much of the biographical details do not seem to tally, but interestingly Al Grierson was based in the town Waylon Jennings put on the map ­ Luckenbach, Texas - which in turn is pretty close to Onion Creek which is mentioned in the song. What however convinced me I was barking up the wrong tree was her reference to “a summer wind that came and blew the candle out”. Grierson died in a flash flood in the early November ­ not summer - of the year 2000.)

Track 4 is one of the stronger songs on the CD: “Tender Mercies” has a strong hook and a decent lyric that compares the lot of suicide bombers in (presumably) Israel; kids poisoned by pollution when swimming in a stagnant pond in Kosovo; and a stable loving home life in (presumably) America.

But we have to wait for track 7 before we come upon the song that is truly worthy of her vocal talent. “The Ballad of Yvonne Johnson” tells the true story of an abused kid who becomes an abused wife, and who then in turn commits the grossest abuse known to man: caught up in the vicious circle of violence, she takes another man's life. The writing is in the first person: not surprisingly since Yvonne Johnson is given co-writer credit here.

And what fine writing it is: Gilkyson's pot of words seldom extends to the flowery anyway, but here ­ even by her standards ­ they descend to the stark and staccato, pretty much in tune with the unflowery life-experience that is being catalogued.

The next couple of tracks are very acceptable fare (the first by her late somewhat famous songwriter dad, the late Terry Gilkyson), and we end the album with a curious “lost” song of Woody Guthrie's, “Peace Call”. On this she has some stellar chums sing along. (I refer to Patty Griffin, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Iris Dement.)

Now, I have to declare that Iris Dement just singing ANYTHING will be enough to make my day. But that said, Billy Bragg and Woody's daughter ought to leave that drawer which was full of Woody's unsuccessful compositions, firmly shut.

Regarding “Peace Call” Eliza says: “It was an undiscovered treasure. I couldn't believe that nobody had done it”.

Now I speak as someone who yields to few people in my admiration for Guthrie, that truly great American hero. But Eliza, all I can say is this: generations of artistes did not record the song for a reason. And that reason is that the song - by Woody's standards - is a dud.

But this album is FAR from being a dud. Quite the opposite in fact. It demonstrates a leading light of the Austin, Texas scene at the top of her game. She is writing decent-to-strong songs, and performing them with vocal aplomb, backed by some tasty musicians.

This album will enhance her profile here in the UK.
Dai Woosnam
Grimsby, England

Track List:

• Hiway 9 (4:01)
• Not Lonely - (3:59)
• Dark Side of Town - (4:32) Eliza and Nancy Gilkyson
• Tender Mercies - (3:58)
• Wonderland - (4:21)
• Separated - (3:41)
• Ballad of Yvonne Johnson - (2:52) Eliza Gilkyson and Yvonne Johnson
• Runnin Away - (4:14) Terry Gilkyson
• Milk and Honey - (3:34)
• Peace Call - (3:15) Woody Guthrie

All songs written by Eliza Gilkyson, except as noted.

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