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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1395

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Cheryl Wheeler: Defying Gravity
by George Graham

(Philo Records 1240 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/9/2005)

Good singer-songwriters tend to have fairly lengthy careers, thanks to the timeless and personal nature of the format: with the concentration on the content of the songs, rather than any theatrics, or faddishness. This week we have the new release from a now-tenured artist who was considered part of the New Folk scene in the 1980s when she first appeared, Cheryl Wheeler. Her new first CD in about six years, is called Defying Gravity.

Cheryl Wheeler has been writing songs since her teens, and has been performing full-time since completing school. During the 1980s, she attracted some attention in Nashville, and over the years, her songs have been recorded by such popular artists as Garth Brooks, Bette Midler, Dan Seals, and English folk artist Linda Thompson. But the definitive versions of her songs have been embodied in her six albums since the early 1980s, including one major-label release done in Nashville. But that was soon abandoned by the label, before being re-released on the independent Philo label for whom she has been recording since then.

Defying Gravity is Ms. Wheeler's first new recording since her masterful release Sylvia Hotel, which came out in 1999. She also had a live CD released in 2002. Defying Gravity represents the two sides of Ms. Wheeler: writer of songs capable of being pop hits, addressing the subject of love in various states of being torn asunder, and the creator of some very humorous songs, delivered in her sometimes laconic deadpan before a live audience. This time, she takes on the subject of those annoying cell-phone rings and her dislike of flying. As a lyricist, Ms. Wheeler is skilled at being poetic in her language, yet clear in her meaning, in a field in which vagueness often predominates. And this CD is also a kind of autumn record, from the songs that are set at the end of summer and into fall.

On the new CD, she is joined by a various-sized ensemble of Boston area musicians, including guitarist Duke Levine, and drummers Shawn Pelton and Jay Bellarose. As usual, Ms. Wheeler plays some very nice acoustic guitar and includes one solo instrumental piece on the CD. Her time in Nashville continues to have influence on her sound.

Ms. Wheeler's CD booklet notes include a conversation she had with a friend in which she asks if the record is too gloomy, and indeed, there are several songs about the dissolutions of love affairs, but they are tempered by some optimistic ones, along with the two live humorous songs. So the CD definitely has a bit of a dichotomy between the introspective mellow pop and the cleverly humorous live tracks. But those have always been the two sides of Cheryl Wheeler.

The opening track is the first of the breakup songs. Since You've Been Gone is an appealing waltz which is unmistakable in its meaning. <<>>

One of the autumn songs is called Little Road, in which the idyllic scenes of October are contrasted with the line "How can there be such trouble in this world." <<>>

Also taking place in the same season is Summer's Almost Over, with its mixed feelings about the joys of autumn and a sense of melancholy. <<>>

Ms. Wheeler's time as a Nashville songwriter comes out on the song Must Be Sinking Now, which one could easily imagine a country-pop artist turning into a commercial hit. Ms. Wheeler's performance is tasteful, if not exactly like a folksinger. <<>>

One of my favorites on the CD is a poignant story song called Alice, whose protagonist is torn between nomadic tendencies and being tied down with family and obligations. <<>>

The title song Defying Gravity is actually a cover of a composition from the 1970s by Jesse Winchester. Lucy Kaplansky lends a hand doing backing vocals on this song that is given a slightly tropical sound. <<>>

Ms. Wheeler includes a very attractive, short solo acoustic guitar instrumental called Clearwater, Florida <<>> which serves as a lead-in to Here comes Floyd, about one of the hurricanes that struck Florida last year. It's given a quirky swing-influenced arrangement. <<>>

For fans who have seen Ms. Wheeler live, the highlights of the CD are the two humorous live tracks, recorded at the now-shutterd Bottom Line in New York. It's the Phone addresses the scourge of cell phones and their musical ring-tones. <<>>

And she follows that up with her paean to the indignities of flying in the 21st Century, On the Plane. <<>>

As she has for some 20 years, Cheryl Wheeler remains one of the bright lights on the contemporary singer-songwriter scene. She combines often poignant writing with some well-placed humor, though the former does dominate this CD with its themes of breakups and autumn. Some vestiges of her experience in Nashville remain evident, though the eclectic new folk sound does tend to dominate, with the production by Ben Wisch, the ubiquitous producer of singer-songwriters from Marc Cohn to John Gorka.

Out grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The mix has everything in about the right place, and the instrumental sound has good clarity. But at times Ms. Wheeler's vocals are processed in a way that gives a kind of in-your-face sound that erases some of the subtleties of her vocal performance.

Goodness knows we have no shortage of singer-songwriter records, even good singer-songwriter records. But Cheryl Wheeler, on Defying Gravity, the latest of her infrequent recordings, reminds us of why she is so respected in a crowded field.

(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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