Cheryl Wheeler: Sylvia Hotel
by George Graham
(Philo 1212 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/24/99)
Beyond the superficiality of the commercial music scene are a remarkably large number of singer-songwriters in what could loosely be called the "folk" style whose goal is to present some literate lyrics in a mostly acoustic context. While many try to address unexpected topics in song, by far, most turn their attention to personal relationships. It's a subject that seems endlessly fertile, and yet has been the basis of so many songs that standing out in the field is indeed difficult. This week we have the sixth album by an acoustic singer-songwriter who usually draws on familiar subjects and yet manages to create memorable songs in the process. New England-based Cheryl Wheeler's new CD is entitled Sylvia Hotel.
Cheryl Wheeler has been recording since the early 1980s, but releasing albums relatively infrequently, starting with an independent debut EP and leading eventually to a major-label album done in Nashville in the early 1990s. Of course, literate singer-songwriters don't last long on the big record companies, so for the last few years, Ms. Wheeler has been plying her trade on the more receptive independent folk label Philo. Some of her songs have been covered by country artists like Suzy Bogguss, and Dan Seals, as well as by Bette Midler, and Irish singer Maura O'Connell. In performance, Ms. Wheeler is known for going between her poetic, introspective side, and her wry sense of humor and iconoclastic outlook.
Her new album features a bit of both, with a collection of fine new songs dealing with relationships, in this case, mostly separation -- a bunch of songs no doubt inspired by a recent divorce -- some others with a more humorous point of view, along with a couple of good songs about another perennial subject for itinerant musicians, the road. Some of Ms. Wheeler's past albums have featured well-known backing musicians and singers, but for this record, she is joined by a more-or-less constant band of studio musicians who regularly work with this album's New York-based producer Ben Wisch, who has produced many an album in this genre by such people as Marc Cohn, The Story and others. The players on Sylvia Hotel include bassist Zev Katz, drummer Shawn Pelton, keyboard man Kenny White and Larry Campbell on Dobro and pedal steel. Ubiquitous backing singer and singer-songwriter in her own right, Lucy Kaplansky also appears.
This album's liner notes make much of the two Cheryl Wheelers, the poet and "evil-twin" comic. The former is given the greater amount of space on this CD, but there are a couple of live tracks in which her sense of humor combined with her rapport with the audience become apparent. There's also a hidden track of a home recording of a biting commentary on banks. According to one account, this album, which was started in 1997, was delayed for a while. Ms. Wheeler had written a lot of songs inspired by her divorce and wanted to restructure the album later to include more diverse material. There still is a recurring theme of separation, but the album is a little more wide-ranging in its scope.
As usual, Ms. Wheeler's fine voice and easy-going performing style serve as the focus. The album's tasteful, laid-back production never gets in the way of the songs, which are as pleasing musically as they are lyrically.
Things get under way with a kind of pastoral reflection called His Hometown, perhaps inspired by Ms. Wheeler's own small-town upbringing. The central character is a kind of idealized simple, practical old man, a constant in a changing world. <<>>
The first of five songs considering the loss or end of a relationship is But the Days and Nights Are Long. The piece is a real gem, both lyrically and musically. The words consider finding a way to cope with a loss. <<>>
Exploring a different facet of the same subject is The Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing, which deals rather specifically with divorce. <<>>
An astute bit of social commentary provides one of the highlights of the album. If It Were Up to Me is an almost rap-like litany of things and people to blame for the current state of affairs. <<>> Ms. Wheeler offers her own practical solution. <<>>
Ms. Wheeler's music has often had a bit of country influence. That is reflected in another worthy composition, All The Live Long Day, which provides another take on separation. The result with its mostly acoustic instrumentation and prominent Dobro is very tasteful. <<>>
The first of the two live funny songs is called Unworthy, which is a wonderful recitation of supposed reasons to feel guilty. <<>>
There are two road songs, another topic frequently addressed by others, but given a new light by Ms. Wheeler. Rainy Road into Atlanta is a kind of a vignette of a stop along the way presumably to a gig. <<>> While Lighting Up the Mighty Mississippi is a broader consideration of travelling. <<>>
The other of the humorous live songs is Potato, a recording of which was previously released on a compilation of funny songs produced by Christine Lavin. The object of this song was to take the same of the tuber and weave it into the Mexican Hat Dance and have the syllables come out right. <<>>
There is one other subject addressed on the album, that of a feline in one's life. The song Meow reflects the notion shared by many a cat owner wondering who owns whom. <<>>
Cheryl Wheeler's Sylvia Hotel is a very tasteful album by an outstanding and appealing singer-songwriter who manages to explore familiar topics and come up with songs that cast them in a new light. The writing is intelligent and the musicianship first-rate. The only quibble one might have is the preponderance of songs about loss of a relationship. Even though she explores it from different perspectives, five out of the thirteen songs does give this album a definite lyrical slant. Her divorce was no doubt on her mind, but in her writing, she might have tried to find a little more inspiration elsewhere. The album's running order also puts songs of a similar subject next to each other, such as the two road songs being consecutive. Rearranging the songs on the CD might have made for more varied listening.
In terms of production and sound, the album is nicely done. Producer Ben Wisch was for a while making records with different artists that tended to sound similar, but this record avoids most of what are now becoming the "new folk" clichés and keeps things understated while eliciting some excellent contributions by the backing musicians. Sonically, the album is a class act, also pleasingly understated with an honest, rather intimate sound, and a refreshing avoidance of obvious studio effects.
Personal relationships have been the grist of songwriters for hundreds of years, and these days, for hundreds of songwriters. Cheryl Wheeler breathes new life into familiar subjects and creates an excellent album that you'll want to keep going back to.
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