It’s hard to eschew expectations about any new Eliza
Gilkyson release. Every album is accompanied by the anticipation that would be
appropriate around a veteran magician: Will she recreate the undulating heat of
“Unless You Want Me Now”? Can she make her way back onto the high wire from
which she unfurled the breathtaking vulnerability of “Redemption Road”? Both songs are from the
1996 watermark named for the latter. Since Redemption Road,
prolific, occasionally brilliant songwriting has added flesh to her ongoing
narrative. Gilkyson so handily weaves spiritual, political, personal, pop,
country, and new wave influences and viewpoints into a folk patchwork that her
followers unblinkingly purchase tickets for the ride. Her deft musicianship and
intense vocals (like a more textured Patti Smith, with some well-placed
huskiness, and minus the roar) brand everything she does. The effect’s enhanced
by a pop sensibility — Gilkyson grew up around the music of her father Terry,
whose compositions for Disney included “The Bare Necessities”– and the knack
of collaborating with top-drawer players.
In 2004 she received a Grammy nomination for Land of Milk and Honey.
This back story’s being explicated because Gilkyson’s one of
the most talented folk artists in America – and, for years, relative
to her talent, was relatively unknown. But what of Roses at the End of Time?
The less-than-great news may be that Gilkyson has grown
accustomed to her loyal legion of fans. Also, for the last decade, she’s pumped
out a new set approximately every two years. She performs a lot. Onstage, songs
that go on for six or seven hypnotic minutes are enjoyed and appreciated.
Happily (perhaps), Roses at the End of
Time isn’t any shorter on high points than Gilkyson is on listeners who are
likely to sit intently through the more plodding and pedestrian interludes.
The languor of the nearly six-minute opener, “Blue Moon
Night,” is saved from flaccidity by a gorgeous instrumental backdrop (Gilkyson
on electric and acoustic guitars; Mike Hardwick providing sustained electric
chords). But lovely guitar playing isn’t
enough to hold my interest in a rather stock, very sleepy,
through-the-eyes-of-Mexican-farm-workers dirge, “Vayan al Norte.” The seven
minutes of a sympathy card to an abandoned woman, “Belle of the Ball,” are
enough enlivened by Cisco (drum loops, electric guitar, piano, and vocal
harmonies) to provide what’s probably a stunning live piece. Here, it’s a
stretch, albeit lovely; and most likely to appeal to listeners open to musing
along over herbal tea — or with herb in hand; headphones on ears. It makes me
nostalgic for Sandy Denny – while her tracks, long or short, were coddled by
the cream of progressive British folk, they hold my interest without any sort
of herbal supplementation.
Roses at the End of
Time has considerable sparkle. Bolstered by bass and drums, “Looking for a
Place” has a crisp gait that sustains inspired electric guitar chording and
Gilkyson’s casual, Dylanesque lyrics. It could be a Traveling Wilburys outtake.
“Slouching towards Bethlehem”
is solidly “down on the corner.” The clubfooted shuffle and old-timey
embellishment (trombone, Dobro, and pedal steel guitar) prompt a brainstorm:
What kind of fireworks could Gilkyson create with Tom Waits?
The backwoodsy plinks and plunks (fiddle and banjo) of
“Death in Arkansas”
are also persuasive. But when the sun is setting, I’d still place bets that no
one is sorry when Gilkyson eases back into well-written, simply-realized
ballads. Her acoustic guitar, with thoughtful upright bass playing from Chris
Marsh, and Hardwick’s luscious electric echoes, bring the best out of “Blue
Moon Night,” “Once I had a Home,” and “Midnight on Raton.” Gilkyson seems to be
enjoying what might be called her prime. The end of her abilities and endurance
seems pretty far down the line.
DOWNLOAD: “Looking for a Place,” “Slouching towards Bethlehem,”
“Midnight on Raton,” “Death in Arkansas”