A few years ago, the coffeehouse-singing female songwriter was assumed to be either someone who lost touch with the music business or, in some cases, with reality itself. But given the current nature of the world today, it seems that these voices are being sought out like never before. And not just the names of Dylan and Baez, but a whole slew of those who grew up on their music. Eliza Gilkyson seems to be reaping the benefits of just that trend. After releasing a critically acclaimed album entitled Lost and Found in 2002, Gilkyson was intent on one-upping her socially aware repertoire with even more musical and lyrical ammo. The end product is 10 tracks — eight originals and two covers, including a Woody Guthrie song, “Peace Call”, that was never recorded. It’s an apt title for an album that pulls few punches on what is happening all over, including Iraq.
“Hiway 9” is a slower and punchy Americana tune that could be mistaken for a smooth Gillian Welch. “Well the white god said to the little man / We’re gonna fulfill scripture in the holy land / Between the Tigris and Euphrates it’s a lot like hell / Go on and liberate my people and their O-I-L”, she sings in the initial verse, before tackling, albeit subtly and through double entendres, Clear Channel and American foreign policy. It’s a ditty that you can hear Lucinda Williams humming along to, but papa Williams not quite going along with the idea of. Slaid Cleaves and Mark Hallman add backing harmonies, while Rob Gjerose is perfect on the dobro. It’s an easy going and ambling song, but has a weighty message to it. Its lovably instrumental conclusion could go on about a half-minute longer, but Gilkyson nips things in the bud. “Not Lonely” is more introspective and could work for Sheryl Crow only — a dark and yet soothing vocal that can’t decide if the glass is half empty, half full, or in the sink being washed. Gilkyson is along for the roots-like ride through Americana, or, if she would perhaps coin, Worldicana.
When she ventures into more of a sultry style, the payoff is occasionally lukewarm. “Dark Side of Town” could have been recorded by anyone from Kathleen Edwards to Allison Moorer. It picks up steam on the second chorus, where she is accompanied by a horde of backing vocals, giving it more of an earthy, homey atmosphere. The horns used add another great bit of color. Perhaps the first true highlight that separates good songs from great songs is “Tender Mercies”. Here, Gilkyson could be mistaken for Emmylou Harris as the topic of a suicide bomber is addressed in the first verse and the second revolves around environmental pollution and children playing around toxic chemicals. Hard stuff to translate into simple words, but she is able to master the song with a simple folk arrangement on acoustic guitar and rides it until she sees fit to wrap it up. Only driving this point home are the harmonies from her two children, Cordelia Castillo and Cisco Ryder.
After a brief attempt at roots pop during “Wonderland”, Gilkyson goes back to the dreary and, at times, brutally honest “Separated” — fragile in the style of Sarah McLachlan, but without the layering and pop textures that are McLachlan’s downfall. Again, the ghost of Lucinda circa Essence is appearing and, if you like Lucinda, you’ll like this song. The lengthy and very alluring “Ballad of Yvonne Johnson” speaks of a life where just about everything could go wrong, with the person asking for forgiveness and redemption at its conclusion — it’s a fine tune all around.
As a title track, “Milk and Honey” has an almost hymnal atmosphere to it, although what makes it work is the format used, one either Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen would have equal success at — sparse but still warm. The closing tune, “Peace Call”, has a few special guests on it, including Patty Griffin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Iris DeMent. Not a bad trio for a song never gotten around to by Mr. Guthrie himself. There are albums that one can always return to regardless of time, place, fad or fashion. This is one of them.