Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Review of Eliza Gilkyson's "Secularia"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website a few minutes ago:

Review Summary: A beautiful album of spiritual folk music.

This album has been one of the more pleasant surprises of 2018. Eliza Gilkyson is an American folk artist who released her first album back in 1969. Overall, she has more than twenty LPs under her belt. She's one of those musicians who is cherished within folk circles, but almost completely unknown to the public at large. As best I can tell, she's based out of Austin, TX, although she seems to have also spent significant parts of her career in Los Angeles (and at one time, was a singer/composer for Disney films) and in Santa Fe, NM. She's also one of these people who grew up around music - her father Terry Gilkyson was a folk musician, and her brother Tony is an L.A.-based rock musician.

On Secularia, Gilkyson's latest release, her style is basic folk, with light elements of country and gospel. The album is an exploration of spirituality, but not in the traditional, organized religion sense. (The CD case includes a quote from Woody Guthrie: "My religion is so big, no matter who you are, you're in it, and no matter what you do you can't get out of it.") Upon first listen, I assumed that a number of these songs were covers of standards, including a track called "Emmanuelle", which I supposed to be a traditional Scottish song. As it turns out, though, I was mistaken. Of the album's 12 songs, the only cover is her gentle version of the old spiritual song "Down by the Riverside".

Gilkyson has quite a pleasant voice, and while several of the tunes make it clear that she's horrified by many of the actions people have taken throughout history that have been justified by religion (e.g., "In the Name of the Lord"), it's not at all a preachy album. Instead, it's humble, and personal, and mostly peaceful. The first track, "Solitary Singer", sets the tone. This one was written by her father, based on a poem written by her grandmother. It's a quiet, slightly sad song, about doing one's best singing alone, late at night, when no one can hear.

There are a number of guest appearances on this LP. Folk icon Shawn Colvin joins Gilkyson for some harmonies on a track called "Conservation", while The Tosca String Quartet plays on a slow, ravishingly lovely piano number named "Reunion". The late Jimmy LaFave also sings a duet with her on the "Down by the Riverside" cover, while Gospel singer Sam Butler joins Gilkyson, tenor David Hurst and bass singer Darryl Boudreaux for four-part harmony on another exquisite track called "Sanctuary". 

Nevertheless, some of the most powerful tracks on Secularia are also some of the sparsest. The (almost) title track, "Seculare" is a simple song of gratitude, wherein Gilkyson thanks her God not only for miracles of nature such as the stars and the rivers, and for the things that have gone well in her life, but also for the hardships: "Thank you for the my tears/Loved ones who forgave me/Thank you for my darkest years/All the sorrows that made me/And the beauty that saved me." And "Instrument" ends the LP on something of a bittersweet note, as she sings, "I'm your unworthy instrument/Come strike my final tones/And blow your horn magnificent/Through the hollow of my bones."

Secularia is an album of rare sincerity and beauty. If you let it in, it's likely to grow on you.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars