Even though she left town for a few years, Jenny Labow remains a local favorite in Tulsa and Northeast Oklahoma. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as the saying goes, and Tulsa's obsession with Ms. Labow is a prime example of the old adage.
Roughly seven years after her sophomore album, Jenny returns with her third official CD, Sunday Morning, this weekend with release parties in both Tulsa and Stillwater. Whereas that much time between official releases would leave most artists afloat at sea and hoping to reconnect with old fans, Jenny's latest return is being met with open arms by a patient and faithful following.
Labow made name for herself in the early '90's as frontwoman for Glass House and went on to cement her place in Tulsa's collective musical conscience after the group split in '96 with her well-received solo debut disc, Flourish, in 1997.
Labow's future looked promising as the debut CD was picked up by indie label Renaissance Records for national distribution and Jenny made an appearance at the Lilith Fair Festival in 1998.
An acting debut in the independent film "Chillicothe", which appeared in the '99 Sundance Film Festival, and sophomore album, 2000's ...Everything But You, preceded Labow's relocation to Los Angeles to further her career.
Although Jenny didn't do much solo recording while in LA, she continued to hone her craft, meeting local musicians, playing gigs and writing songs in an atmosphere that allowed her to spread her wings.
And, Labow worked with film composer John Swihart on a number of songs for film and television, including a theme song demo for the series Faith and Hope and an appearance on the score to the Johnny Knoxville movie "Dirty Calhoun".
Jenny even spent some of the Los Angeles time fronting the progressive hard-rock act Exit Strategy, a group that she described as being "kind of like Tool, only with a female singer." She eventually left the group, finding it hard to fit into the hard-rock scene amidst other people's expectations of her as more of a pop singer-songwriter.
Most of all, Jenny says that her time on the west coast was spent "basically working on my songs, just in a different environment."
Last year Labow returned to Tulsa (where it is considerably less expensive to record) to begin work on a new CD with Dave Percefull at Yellow Dog studios. The resulting album is the forthcoming Sunday Morning.
While Labow's faithful followers will no doubt enjoy the disc, Jenny says that it's a little more rock than the folk/country sound that many people seem to know and expect of her. "Even a friend of mine in LA, who is a producer from New Zealand, thought I was a folk singer" says Labow. "Once he heard it he said 'This is a lot more rock than I expected.'"
No small part of that shift is due to Jenny's time in Los Angeles, where the change of scenery allowed her to move in a more rock and pop direction. She even admits that "for some reason, I tend to write more country or folk sounding material when I'm here", citing a change in her state of mind and point of reference when she's in Oklahoma.
Upon meeting Labow to catch up on what she's been doing over the past few years and discuss the new CD, I can't help but see a parallel between her and Ryan Reynold's character, Chris Brander, in the movie "Just Friends".
In simplest terms, Chris recreated himself in Los Angeles, become successful and popular when freed from others' expectations of him. Once he returned home, however, he was still bound by everyone's preconceptions of him and reverted to his old self despite all of the work he had done to change himself.
Jenny's story may not be as extreme (or humorous), but it's hard not to see the similarities. She's a solid songwriter with a strong voice, but outside of the record you can see an artist torn between where she feels led and what is expected of her.
Those expectations of the girl next door with the sweet voice and acoustic, folk sound are clearly pronounced in Tulsa, but have even followed her, to some degree, to LA, where she allows herself more of a pop-rock sheen.
Although she does seem most comfortable and best suited as a pop-smart singer-songwriter, who's to say she shouldn't front a progressive-metal band if that's where she feels led? On the other hand, if it was a trial and error experience that helped shape her current image and sound, who's to argue or take that away?
The new disc bursts in places with huge guitars, as on "Sunday Morning" and "Downside", before making way for Labow's voice when "Change Your Mind" takes a distinctively electronic pop turn, paired with a big, fuzzy chorus that sticks in your head. Each show Labow's grace as a pop/rock songstress and the direction she hopes to continue to follow.
Later in the disc, the songs Labow wrote in Tulsa stand in stark contrast to the material written in Los Angeles. The change in tone is apparent as "The Only One" falls back into the acoustic folk-pop mold that Jenny does well, but seems destined to leave behind. "40 Seconds", although more lush, also returns to a mellow, almost country-ballad sound that belies the rest of the disc.
While both songs are solid in on their own and add to the diversity of the album, they also don't match the energy of songs that open the disc.
For now, Sunday Morning marks an artist at crossroads, trying to figure out exactly who she is and who she's going to be. Labow seems best suited to be songstress in the mold of Lisa Loeb, who has openly grown as an artist herself; a pop songstress who bases her work around acoustic writing and excels when supported by a band and full arrangements.
Loyal fans and peripheral onlookers won't be disappointed when Jenny takes the stages this weekend to unveil her new album. Tulsa fans can catch her at CJ Moloney's, in Broken Arrow (91st Street and 145th E. Ave), on Friday, February 16 at 10pm. Cover is only $5 at the door and the new CD will be available at the show.
Stillwater fans and those in the mood for a road trip can catch her again on Saturday night at Eskimo Joe's.
Backed by Jason Gilardi and Scott Jones of Caroline's Spine, Labow will be performing with a group of friends who keep her in a comfort zone but still allow her to show her rocker-girl colors as well as showcase her more mellow material.
Fans should take advantage of the opportunity to see Jenny now, while they still have the chance. Now that the CD is complete, she's looking forward to returning to life in LA to pursue her career on the west coast.
What will be most interesting is to see who the girl next door ultimately becomes. Whatever direction Labow finally settles on, however, she'll still be adored at home.
Whether she finally defines herself as a rocker-chick, a country-tinged folk singer, or an acoustic-pop songwriter that fits somewhere in the middle, there will always be room for her to come home and just be Jenny.
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