Welcome to Audiofemme’s record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. The last Monday of each month, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.
Eliza Gilkyson’s Songs From the River Wind (Howlin’ Dog Records) is an album about the pleasures of wanderlust and the splendor of the great outdoors. “The Hill Behind This Town,” for example, is about watching the day come to an end as the sun goes down, “lighting up the mountain tops and this heart of mine.” The pastoral setting for the songs was inspired by her move from Austin, Texas to northern New Mexico, near Taos; with song titles like “Before the Great River Was Tamed” and “Bristlecone Pine” you can almost picture the wide open spaces and taste the dry desert air.
She also gives a new spin to some traditional folk numbers. “Wanderin’,” based on an Irish ballad, was recorded by her father’s band, Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders. In Eliza’s version, it’s a woman, not a man, answering the call of the road, and not even “a guitar man in Austin” or “a cowboy up in Jackson” can tempt her to stay. Similarly, in “Buffalo Gals Redux” the gals don’t need to be called to the dance, they’re out there already, “pedal to the metal,” taking the menfolk on what sounds like a glorious spin around the dance floor (“Tomorrow morn his head’ll still be ringin’”).
Gilkyson’s own songs unearth the extraordinary in the everyday, as in “Charlie Moore,” a portrait of a wise old soul who becomes a mythical character when seen through the eyes of a child. “Don’t Stop Lovin’ Me” has the gentle slide of a lap steel guitar, adding to the array of other musical delights provided by banjo, dulcimer, acoustic guitar, and violin. The album closes with the instrumental “CM Schottische,” a tune to square dance to, given a “lovely old timey re-creation” (in Gilkyson’s description) by producer Don Richman. A warm and friendly release to welcome you into the new year.
As a prelude to her final North American tour later this year, Janis Ian has released her first album of new material in fifteen years, The Light at the End of the Line (on her own Rude Girl Records). It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection of songs, as Ian looks back on the trajectory of her life. “See these marks on my skin? They are the lyric of my life,” she sings in the opening song “I’m Still Standing,” embracing the experience of aging as a welcome part of life. “Nina,” featuring piano instead of acoustic guitar, is a delicate, beautiful number about Ian’s friend and fellow musician/songwriter, Nina Simone, vividly describing her singing as “alphabets of lightning falling from your lips.”
But Ian’s always been the type of singer-songwriter who doesn’t limit herself to self-reflection, having addressed issues of social justice and inequality from her first single, “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” about interracial relationships. “Resist” attacks the sexism that’s still too all-pervasive, from the tyranny of high heels to genital mutilation. “Stranger” looks at the divisiveness in the country through the prism of a town where “It gets smaller every year” due to the small minds of its inhabitants. But there’s a measure of hope in “Better Times Will Come,” which starts with Ian singing acapella and grows into a singalong toe-tapper enlivened by the unexpected squall of an electric guitar.
Ian’s stated this will be her final release, and some songs on the album, like “Swannanoa,” with its chorus “I’ll be home to stay,” as well as the title track, echo that theme. If it is her last musical work (she plans to continue her writing career, and is currently working on a novel), it brings her recording career to a fine conclusion.