Hope Springs

Stellar Sound Production
CD | Digital

One of my very favorite versatile vocalists, Janet Planet, has an eclectic repertoire with live shows and recordings that illuminate any songwriter’s work. She has addressed standards by such masters as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mandel, did two full albums dedicated to jazz treatments of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre, pens some of her own material, and often turns her talent to creations by writers she knows and admires. Some are fellow Wisconsinites. Hope Springs contains seven pieces with music and lyrics by Susan Weinschenk, an author and psychologist, with pensive and profound reflections on coping and hoping when we are dealing with the worst of times. Heartfelt and heartening, it’s a compact set of philosophy and encouragement set to music, delivered with the utmost sincerity and warmth by the elegant-voiced singer. What could be better than a trusted, supportive life coach coating truth with sublime honeyed sounds, sailing through pleasing melodies?

Writing or singing advice is a noble goal, but such endeavors could risk sounding pat, preachy, or simplistic. Lyrics about perseverance and keeping faith can stand a better chance of coming across as empathetic words of wisdom if we know the writer has been through tough times. That’s the case here. The liner notes state “Susan Weinschenk composes songs based on her own life experiences, as well as ideas and inspiration that comes to her.” Elsewhere, the writer publicly elaborated, stating: ” These songs were written over a two-year period. Some of this music came out of despair and hope from a year of my cancer journey that happened at the same time as the COVID pandemic.” The results are moving, but there’s no wallowing in self-pity or the kind of personal detail diary or vocabulary that would prevent commentary from being relatable in a more generalized way.

Words, like the melodies, are unpretentious but effective, sometimes using a device favored by lyricists over the years of references to Nature and weather to represent bad times and better times. In the wistful “Once Again,” which reminds me a bit of the folk song “Oh Shenandoah,” the striking a capella beginning sets the scene tersely with “The sky is gray/ The rain is falling/ My heart is heavy, like the clouds/ Sometimes I wonder if I’ll make it through the trials…” A reflection on “Winter” begins with a long, haunting instrumental introduction, then we hear mentions of the dark, cold and snow, followed by the patient “We’ll wait for the spring” and the assured “We’ll make it through the long, long night.” So, the hope in this Hope Springsselection is literally the season of spring, but elsewhere “spring” is a verb as in the adage “Hope springs eternal.”

The soothing title song begins, “When things look darkest and you grow weary/ When you feel lost and alone/ The road is too long, the path too winding/ There is no clear way to go/ That’s when the light shines…” Rather than plodding and glum, the melody is economical and–surprise!–words such as “weary” come on high notes so they soar instead of feeling on-the-nose heavy or descending into dreariness. Other numbers center on joyful times, wishing love and peace for the listener, and references to personal relationships.

These contemplative performances are emotionally impactful, with the convincing balms and laments accompanied by moody but mostly spare instrumentals by an on-target quartet that includes the project’s coordinator in the studio, saxophonist Tom Washatka, the singer’s frequent collaborator (and husband).

If you have a friend or relative beset with struggles and in need of hope, Hope Springs is the ideal gift. It also can be the go-to self-help refresher course for the rest of us. Janet Planet’s life-affirming sensitivity and invigorating musicality are always the right prescription for a mood elevator.