Paradise Hotel is the fourth of Eliza Gilkyson’s increasingly impressive Red House releases. It’s been an interesting journey. An evolution almost. Hard Times in Babylon (2000) promised much but under-delivered. Lost and Found (2002) was still a little less than it might have been but nonetheless presented a largely fine collection of deeply personal moments. Meanwhile Land of Milk and Honey (2004) saw Gilkyson step up her game once more by addressing political issues — and in particular the Middle East — in addition to her staples: emotions, love gone wrong, and the human condition. Paradise Hotel continues the trend. It’s her most accomplished and consistent work to-date, probably because she seems really to have found the self-assurance and independence she announced in a trio of songs (“Not Lonely”, “Wonderland” and “Separated”) on Land of Milk and Honey.
Although there is no single theme to Paradise Hotel, there are several series of recurrent imagery. The most obvious is Gilkyson’s persistent use of seas and storms to describe our troubled times. This is a motif that runs the title track, “Calm Before the Storm”, and “Requiem”. The last two of these form part of an essentially spiritual threesome that culminates in the hopeful album closer “When You Walk On”. Clearly, like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Eliza Gilkyson believes in the golden sky at the end of the storm.
Each song on Paradise Hotel is interesting in its own right. One borrows heavily from Procol Harum, another is sung in Spanish, a third is an inelegant but virulent attack on the Bush administration, a fourth features the high clear voice of Gilkyson’s daughter as a counterpoint to her own more travelled vocal, and so on and so forth. But the three best songs all stand alone in their own ways.
“Jedidiah 1777” tells of Gilkyson’s ancestral grandfather, Brigadier General Jedidiah Huntington, who fought alongside George Washington in the American Revolutionary War. Over a simple and relentless acoustic pattern, she sings, in dry matter-of-fact tones, lyrics that come directly from Huntington’s own letters to his family — letters she found at a Connecticut Historical Library. It’s an engrossing song that could have achieved something approaching epic status had Huntington been a more prolific correspondent.
“Is It Like Today” is a cover of an old World Party song. One which, in typically modest Karl Wallinger style, attempts to analyze the history of pretty much everything that’s ever gone wrong with mankind since we first started keeping records. Gilkyson’s performance makes the most of the lyrics while her music rises and becomes more insistent as she moves forward throughout history repainting someone else’s pictures because they fit splendidly into her construct of concern about a coming storm. Like Wallinger’s Everyman and God, Gilkyson is clearly “really worried about living”.
“Jedidiah 1777” and “Is It Like Today” are both excellent performances, but the very best song on Paradise Hotel comes when Gilkyson steps back from the big pictures and tells a small, plain, personal story. In simple terms, “Think About You” is the closest Gilkyson has ever come to a Lucinda Williams moment. She’s driving north from Los Angeles, thinking about a lost love, stopping here, there and at Half Moon Bay, singing a straight-forward stoically soulful country song full of self-knowledge. Sometimes less is most definitely more.