Monday, March 23, 2020

Jan Luby: “Night Window” (2020) CD Review

In my late teens in Massachusetts, I started frequenting a venue called The Old Vienna Kaffeehaus, and it was there that I saw some of the best singer/songwriters, established artists of earlier generations as well as the emerging group of talented New England musicians. Those of the latter group would often test out new songs at the weekly open mic. And soon I was learning about folk clubs all over the place, from the Coffee Kingdom in Worcester to the Nameless Coffeehouse in Cambridge. There was so much excellent music those days, a great deal of it coming from folks who were just starting out, people like Ellis Paul, Jim Infantino, Brooks Williams, Vance Gilbert, Greg Greenway, Dar Williams and Jan Luby. I consider myself lucky to have seen these performers at the beginning of their careers, and am thrilled to hear new releases from them now. Jan Luby’s new album, Night Window, features all original material, and her songwriting is as strong as ever. She has some special guests performing with her on different tracks, including Cathy Clasper-Torch on violin and cello, adding to the beauty of these tracks.

Jan Luby kicks off her new release with “Coloring Outside The Lines,” which starts with some bright, pretty guitar work. The song’s opening lines are of a childhood experience: “When I was a child, I colored grass orange/The princess’ hair light green.” Ah yes, a punk princess! “They said, ‘Clouds are white, the sky is blue.’” It’s a song about being corrected as a child, being told to conform to accepted ideas of how things should be, what things should look like. I think this happens to all kids, which is a shame (at least it did when I was growing up). But this song is about embracing that individuality and keeping an open mind, and taking that sense into adulthood, experiencing a life outside the lines. It is a cheerful, positive song, which we all certainly need these days. “Here’s a song to the ones who don’t follow/Who listen to a voice their own/While you tell them that they can’t make a difference/They’re busy growing the seeds they’ve sown.” Seth Connolly plays guitar on this track, and Joe Potenza is on bass. “With our hearts wide open to all we might find/Coloring outside the lines.”

Cathy Clasper-Torch joins Jan Luby on violin on “Fireflies,” a sweet and pretty number with something of a magical quality. There is a delightful innocence to its sound. I love that work on violin, which seems designed to ease our minds and make us feel better, lighter. And Jan’s vocals have a friendly and comforting quality. This is a wonderful song.  It’s followed by the album’s title track, “Night Window.”  Cathy Clasper-Torch plays cello on this one, an instrument I always appreciate. I love those deep, gorgeous tones. Of love, Jan Luby sings “There are no barriers it won’t pass through,” a line I find incredibly appealing. I also love this line: “Convince yourself that nothing matters while hoping that you’re wrong.” Cathy Clasper-Torch switches back to violin on “Black Sparrow Tattoo,” and Billy Novick’s work on penny whistle adds a delightful and enchanting sound. “I still dream about you when I can sleep.”

“Lullabies” features for me what is the most compelling vocal performance of the album. Jan’s voice has a fiercer energy at times. “So many years you blamed yourself/When all you ever did was try to stay alive/Singing lullabies.” This track also features more beautiful work on violin, including a lead halfway through. Joe Potenza’s bass is also a strong element here, and Seth Connolly delivers more good work on guitar. But it is Jan’s vocal performance that makes this my favorite track. “And here you are/You managed to survive/Singing lullabies.” Then in “Don’t Worry About It,” Jan sings “At times like these, sad to the bone, that’s when I want to hide.” Yup. But Jan’s vocals have a comforting quality, and as she sings “Don’t worry about it, there’s nothing to fear,” I am tempted to believe her. Hers is a voice you can trust. And yes, this track features more pretty work on violin. That’s followed by “Las Patronas,” a song about migrants, delivered with both passion and compassion, and featuring Cheryl Arena on harmonica. “Such kindness for strangers passing through.” Then “Living On The River” has a serious, somber tone, and features Tim Tompkins on cello. “A quick decision, or was it planned?/There’s no way that we could understand/Or wonder what you would have done/If you didn’t have a gun.”

Things are certainly tough out there, even scary. And in these dark and confusing times, we rely on those we love for sanity, and to provide a steady ground, making us feel secure, safe. And that’s what “Steady Ground” is about. “You’re the bedrock/Under my feet/When the whole world is sand/When the earth is shaking/Everything breaking/Here you are to take my hand.” While many songs are about that wild, confusing, thrilling aspect of early love, this is rather about that wonderful feeling knowing there is someone there in the center of the maelstrom who always has your back. “You’re the constant in the chaos/When nothing’s what it seems/When I’m lost, you find me/Once again remind me/To hold onto my dreams.” “Steady Ground” is followed by “Sea Glass,” a pretty song that has a particular appeal for me. My family has always collected sea glass from the beach in Gloucester, and now it’s wonderful to see my niece and nephew just as excited about it as my brother and I were when growing up. “Endless days and endless nights/Worn by waves and sand/Sea glass catching sunlight/In the palm of my hand.” Here sea glass works as a good metaphor. “And all that you’ve been through/Made you beautiful.” This song features a beautiful instrumental section led by Cathy Clasper-Torch on violin. Check out these lyrics: “Walking down by the sea/Feeling sad and old/You’re a gift to me/As I brace against the cold/Tiny treasure found/Made my spirits rise.”

“Crazy Streak” comes as a surprise, even a jolt. It is delivered a cappella, with Kim Trusty joining Jan on vocals. This song has an undeniable energy. “I got a crazy streak/Don’t mess with me/I got a crazy streak/When I feel threatened enough/Don’t care about your size.” This one ends with a little laugh. The album then concludes with “Age With Grace,” a sweeter-sounding folk song about aging, delivered with some humor. “Who is that person in my bathroom mirror/And what’s she doing in here with me?” This song features some nice work by Cheryl Arena on harmonica. “And, hey, I really don’t mind the wrinkles on my face/But I could do without the aches and pains.” I am guessing basically everyone I know is going to appreciate this song. I laughed out loud the first time I heard her sing that bit at the end: “What was I going to say?/What was I going to say?/What were we talking about?/Oh, maybe it’ll come around again.” For that is all too familiar to me.

CD Track List
  1. Coloring Outside The Lines
  2. Fireflies
  3. Night Window
  4. Black Sparrow Tattoo
  5. Lullabies
  6. Don’t Worry About It
  7. Las Patronas
  8. Living On The River
  9. Steady Ground
  10. Sea Glass
  11. Crazy Streak
  12. Age With Grace
Night Window was released on February 9, 2020.

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