Eliza Gilkyson, Arthur Buck, Salim Nourallah, Trampled by Turtles, Heather Maloney

Eliza Gilkyson, Secularia

Two things everyone knows about Eliza Gilkyson: she's fearless, and she's one hell of a songwriter. On her newest album, we should use the word "hell" ironically. This quiet-but-brilliant album is deeply spiritual, though it won't bring joy to the acolytes of any established religion. Gilkyson has deep doubts that any have a purchase on truth, she's had it up to her guitar nut with holy patriarchy, and she's calling bullshit on the idea that any god sanctions greed-and-hate-based politics. "In the Name of the Lord" Gilkyson sings, We're prisoners in a fairytale/A ship of fools set to sail/We watch the Empire's epic fall/On shiny hand-held screens/The rapture of the buy and sell/The faithful at the wishing well/They rage against the infidel/Lurking in their dreams/And it's all in the name of the lord. Yeah—we're talking that level of razor-sharp writing! Gilkyson has been musing on matters such as these for quite some time. Her stunning and gorgeous "Emmanuelle"—note the feminine spelling—was penned in 1994, as was "Through the Looking Glass." If you think these go back in time, consider that her parents wrote "Solitary Singer" in 1949, and two others—"Dreamtime" and "Sanctuary"—date from 1993 and 2000, respectively.

Gilkyson gives us a refreshing take on faith; her worldview is shaped by openness to wonderment held within a vessel of honest doubt. At one moment, as in "Conservation"—a duet with Shawn Colvin—she sings, I have no god, no king, no savior; yet she mystifies time itself in the new song "Instrument." I'm your unworthy instrument/Come strike my final tones/And blow your horn magnificent/Through the hollows of my bones. Gilkyson's vocals are gorgeous, and the backing Austin musicians add rich depth that is at once understated and complex. Need more than this? How about some soulful gospel from the Rev. Sam Butler "Sanctuary," and a duet with the late Jimmy LaFave on an amazing cover of "Down By the Riverside?" Were it not that the Grammy Awards favor things safe and mainstream, Eliza Gilkyson would be deserving of a third Grammy nomination for this, her 20th album.★★★★★ 

Arthur Buck, Arthur Buck

Arthur Buck is the fruitful collaboration between singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur of Fistful of Mercy, and guitarist Peter Buck of the much-missed band R.E.M. I have heard three tracks from their debut album and it's stunning material the likes of which will make you think rock n' roll is on the cusp of a big comeback. National Public Radio likened their material to "Oasis-styled rock anthems," but to me it's a blend of acid rock and The Beatles in their Magical Mystery Tour guise. There's even a mindfulness song—sans the Maharishi—titled "I Am the Moment," with lines such as, Open your third eye and stop being insane, though it may somewhat tongue and cheek as Arthur confesses it was inspired by watching inspirational videos on YouTube, which might be an oxymoron! This is rock with big swelling moments, the likes of which we hear on "Forever Waiting." But I was simply floored by "Are You Electrified," a layered assemblage of ascending and descending scales merged with power chords and a bridge and chorus. It makes for the kind of worm you'll want to make a permanent resident of your aural canal. Check out the video that goes with it and you might think you've flashed back to the Summer of Love. Yeah—I'm electrified. ★★★★★

Salim Nourallah, North; South; Somewhere South of Sane

Illinois-born, Dallas-based singer/songwriter Salim Nourallah has come up with an innovative build-the-buzz promo. On September 18, he will drop a double-CD album titled Somewhere South of Sane. In the buildup, he's been putting out EPs that contain a few new songs and back catalogue bonus tracks. I've heard two of the EPs—North and South—plus a pre-release of the album. (Love the title, by the way.)

Nourallah acknowledges John Lennon's influence and it's hard not to notice the influence of The Beatles' on Somewhere South of Sane. The title of "Sweet as a Weed" came from a friend who insists it's a Southern expression. Maybe, though I suspect someone is pulling our leg, as it shows up a lot as pot lingo! Nourallah is more candid in telling us that The Beatles' "For No One" (from Revolver) inspired the song. A lot of Nourallah's songs have a trippy feel. "Tucumcari" is about a small New Mexico town with an Apache legend associated with a nearby mountain. Although its melody is quite different, some of the imagery reminds me of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," as do the ambient sound and overlays. That mood is even more pronounced on "This is Where the Trouble Begins," with electric guitar poking small holes in the acoustic lead, then shredding it and sending the composition into a swirl. Think of the electric guitar as analogous to George Harrison's sitar. And then there are the bent acoustic notes of "Rainbow Dolphin" with "Lucy"-like evocations such as trapeze artists swinging from the moon, a polar bear dancing with a broom, and dolphins painting rainbows in the sky.

This is homage at its very best—inspirational, but not derivative. "Totally Lost" uses piano, texturing cello, and lots of other instruments to set us adrift on a sea of uncertainty. "Boy in the Record Shop" is at once bouncy, wistful and contemplative, and the label "acid folk" pops to mind. "The Bullies are Back" is another thick arrangement. The tone is ominous, the feel is ethereal, and the bullies—compared to cockroaches and wild dogs—seem frighteningly familiar in a draw-your-own-conclusions way. But there's also the hopeful promise they won't win, because they can't stand the truth. My favorite track is "Relief," with its pulsing melody, buzzy bass, and heavy beats. It asks, How we ever going to love each other/When we can't even love ourselves? About two minutes in, Nourallah pushes off into an abyss of confusion and darkness. Yet for all of that, the song is about trying to make connections. No one ever said that would be easy. ★★★★

Trampled by Turtles, Burn for Free

Longtime TBT fans will recognize this EP title as a track from a 2005 release. It's a good one—a bluegrass shit-kicker, "Burn for Free," that opens at a frantic pace and never lets you catch your breath. It's one of four back-catalogue tracks being given away to celebrate the band's newest release, Life is Good on the Open Road. Ironically, one of the songs takes the opposite approach; "Midnight on the Interstate" is a sad song for those facing a birthday and feeling lousy about life and how things have been lately. That's the thing about this six-piece Minnesota-based group—they bring you up, and then ease you down. The other two songs are the amped up not-quite-a-waltz "Victory," and "Keys to Paradise," which is sweet but uncertain: It's the secret of the winner/That's why I never got it/I come to find the savior/In your eyes. In it, Dave Simmonett's vocals manage to sound hopeful in one breath, but troubled the next. If you've not yet heard TBT, by all means check them out. The only folks I've ever met who haven't been delighted to awake with turtle prints on their foreheads are those who just don't get bluegrass—if, indeed, that's even the proper label for TBT. I don't care what you call 'em; they're a delight. ★★★★

Heather Maloney, Just Enough Sun

How lucky is Western Massachusetts that New Jersey native Heather Maloney chose it for new home? Maloney is a rising star who has attracted notice for her own fine songwriting, and a cover of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" that makes you sit up and take notice instead of running for the original. She takes a whack at Dylan's "A  Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" on her new six-track EP, but the project's stellar track is "Let Me Stay." Maloney excels at plucking universal chords, and the latter song is something everyone has experienced in adult life: the realization that when you visit your childhood home, I am a guest in every room I've ever known. It's the ultimate poignant road song: at once at rite of passage, a yearning to be back in your own space, and the pull of feels-right-but-it-doesn't nostalgia. Maybe you can also relate to "Bullseye," that moment in a relationship in which you toss caution to the wind and decide, it's a long shot, but I'm taking aim at your heart. This is what Ms. Maloney does best. Here is a mix of fragility, beauty, and simple wisdom. ★★★★ 

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