The Graham Weekly Album Review #1146

CD graphic Lucy Kaplansky: Ten Year Night
by George Graham

(Red House 126 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/7/99)

One bit of advice that's often given to aspiring musicians is "Don't give up your day job." Indeed, the vagaries of the music business make it difficult to eke out a living exclusively on making music, even for artists who have nationally released albums. Lucy Kaplansky is one performer who did give up her non-musical career, and has become one of the most acclaimed up-and-coming singer-songwriters on the new folk scene. She has just released her third solo album, called Ten Year Night.

Lucy Kaplansky get her musical start singing in clubs and bars in the Chicago area while she was barely out of high school. She then moved to New York to try to break into the scene there. She attracted a fair amount of attention by other artists including Shawn Colvin, and soon found herself much in demand as a singing partner and backup vocalist. But Ms. Kaplansky decided to choose another path, and pursued a doctorate in psychology, becoming a practicing clinical psychologist. She worked in a New York hospital with the chronically mentally ill, and also started her own private practice. But she never stopped singing, and was still being asked by her friends to lend a voice in the studio on recordings, among them Shawn Colvin's Steady On, two albums with Nanci Griffith and at least four with John Gorka. Kaplansky also was getting calls for soundtrack and commercial work. Meanwhile, Ms. Colvin was looking to try her hand as a record producer and got together with her old friend and produced sessions with Ms. Kaplansky, which led to the latter's debut album, The Tide, released in 1994. Torn between two fulfilling careers, Dr. Kaplansky, no doubt encouraged by her many friends in the New Folk world, opted for the riskier one, and gave up her psychology practice to become a full-time performer.

While most of her first album consisted of interpretations of the songs of others, her 1996 follow-up record, Flesh and Bone featured more original music, attracting increasing attention in the crowded world of acoustic singer-songwriters.

In the meantime, Ms. Kaplansky began collaborating with two other ascending lights on the scene, Dar Williams and Richard Shindell to form a group called Cry Cry Cry, who released a debut CD last year and continue to tour together.

But Ms. Kaplansky is out with her own new CD, and Ten Year Night more than either previous one, highlights her strengths as a songwriter, as well as an appealing and sensitive interpreter of songs. While she visits some of the classic songwriter topics, she does it with great intelligence and taste. She and her husband Richard Litvin collaborated on the lyrics, while she penned the music. She is joined by some of the musicians whose work has graced some of the more memorable albums on the New Folk scene, including producer and drummer Ben Wittman, who is known for his work with The Story, ubiquitous guitarist Duke Levine, of Shawn Colvin's band, electric guitarist Larry Campbell, who has toured with Bob Dylan and k.d. lang, plus Zev Katz on bass. Ms. Kaplansky also attracts some respected names, returning the favor by helping her with the vocals, including John Gorka, Jennifer Kimball, formerly of the Story, and Richard Shindell.

While the outward sound of this CD -- a laid-back acoustic/electric mix -- is now becoming more or less standard on singer-songwriter records, the album is particularly tasteful even in a field known for understatement, and has a lot of depth. The record is full of songs that reveal new facets at each listen, from the thoughtful lyrics to the subtleties in the arrangements and added instrumentation. She also writes a little from experience in her other career. There is a poignant song about substance abuse, and an interesting one about a therapist who attempts to take advantage of his patient.

Leading off is the title piece, Ten Year Night, a straight-out love song about a memorable time together. Though the arrangement is about as close to clichéd as this CD comes, the song is a fine piece of writing. <<>>

One of the more upbeat and electric songs also features some of the album's best lyrics. End of the Day examines the issue of living with your conscience, after you make your choices in life. <<>>

Another gem is One Good Reason, with a slightly-country influenced but haunting musical setting. Richard Shindell helps with the backing vocals in this frank song about alcoholism. <<>>

Among the most appealing pieces is Promise Me a seemingly autobiographical song of a happily married itinerant musician who spends too much time on the road and away from home. <<>>

According to a press release from the record company, Turn the Lights Back On is about therapy, and presumably about a practitioner who goes over the line. But it could also apply to a relationship in which one person realizes that she is being taken advantage of. The musical setting is appropriately rocky. <<>>

Another difficult issue is taken up in For Once In Your Life about estranged family members. Ms. Kaplansky performs the song solo. <<>>

The one cover on the album is a Steve Earle song, Somewhere Out There. The arrangement takes an appropriately country-rock direction. The song is a good one, but falls a bit short of this CD's original material. <<>>

The album end with A Child's Hands, the closest thing to a disappointment. The worthwhile song ends up being a rather overproduced compared to the rest of the CD. <<>>

Lucy Kaplansky's new third album under her own name Ten Year Night is her best yet. With a greater proportion of original material than her previous recordings, it shows her ability as a fine songwriter, as well her strength as a singer for which she is so well-known especially in the New Folk music community. With blue-chip musicians on the session, the CD features very tasteful backing that in almost all cases really enhances the songs, rather than just providing a bigger sound. And even though there have been a lot of recent records with a basically similar sound in the prolific field of contemporary singer-songwriters, Ten Year Night gets just about everything right, and stands up well to repeated listenings.

Sonically, the album is likewise generally a class act. Ms. Kaplansky's vocals are an auditory delight, and the sonic clarity in the mix is very commendable. But as is depressingly common on CDs these days, in the interests of competitive loudness, the dynamic range was compressed, and consequently a degree of airiness and life was lost from the recording.

While Dr. Lucy Kaplansy may have given up a practice as a clinical psychologist to pursue her music full-time, she may well be having as at least as healthy an effect on those people who hear this wonderful much-in-demand singer, and now increasingly notable songwriter.

(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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