[14 October 2010]
Artists have long understood the power of three. From the fife, drummer, and flag bearer of Revolutionary War times to Picasso’s Three Musicians to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the idea of three seems to have a magical association. The trio Red Horse seem to carry this notion to an extreme. The band is made up of three popular folkies: Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky, who perform three songs each written by the individual artists and three cover tunes.
Of course, the pattern is more complex than it initially seems. Each of the performers sings lead on one of their own three songs, one by the other two, and one cover tune. In addition, each artist uses a different producer. The result comes off as a sort of mostly acoustic tapestry in which the trio takes turns singing and playing each other’s music. Conceptually, this is a sweet idea. In practice, the three performers are not of equal talent and the results are somewhat uneven.
The albums starts off strong with Gilkyson offering a moving rendition of Neil Young’s “I Am a Child”. She delivers the song’s non sequiturs (“The sky is blue / And so is the sea / What is the color / When black is burned”) as if the narrative follows a straight storyline instead of an associative pattern. Gilkyson presents Young’s stark imagery as a question about the meaning of existence rather than a statement about the world as it is, which makes the lyrics prescient instead of dated.
However, Gilkyson cannot do much to rescue Kaplansky’s “Promise Me” from its banality of over-emotionalism. The slow-moving song plods along, so that love itself becomes boring. Gilkyson offers a quick take on Gorka’s “Forget to Breathe”, which makes its utopian sentiments easy to appreciate (“I will rid the war of sorrow / I will stop all wars and pain”). The Austin singer’s new version of her own composition, “Walk Away from Love”, may be the album’s highlight. The singer refuses to be humiliated, even though she knows the relationship she thought would last is over. She faces reality without flinching.
Gorka acquits himself well on Gilkyson’s “Wild Horse” and his cover of Stuart McGregor’s “Coshieville”. His acoustic guitar playing keeps the action of both songs lively, which fits their shared topics of moving on even when times are hard and one may be dying on the inside. Gorka sings in a strong voice so that every word is clearly understood. This also serves him well on his own composition, “If These Walls Could Talk”, with its playfully hardheaded language (“If these walls could talk / They would say ‘Shut up’”). The joke is always on him.
Kaplansky comes off as the weakest link. She turns Gilkyson’s “Sanctuary” into a bore, and offers a weary version of Gorka’s “Blue Chalk” through her plaintive vocals that never express pain as much as put it in air quotation marks. One never really feels she inhabits the lyrics so much as play acts the words by keeping a distance from the emotions. Even her own “Scorpion” comes off as stilted because of her sing-songy approach to the melody, and her cover of the traditional tune “Wayfaring Stranger” that closes the album is dreadfully drab—and the classic song is a difficult one to perform badly.
The power of three can be a commanding force. But this album shows, as Meatloaf once famously sang, two out of three ain’t bad.