Cheryl Wheeler is an anomaly on the acoustic music scene. She has a rare gift for writing songs with lush melodies and lyrics of incredible beauty. On the other hand, she is a master of quick wit. Her observational humor has brought us a number of songs describing the utter ridiculousness of the world around us. And then there is the richness of her silky alto telling us what lies in the deepest recesses of her songwriter's heart.
Defying Gravity is Wheeler's first collection of new work in the six years since the release of the poignant Sylvia Hotel. To say that it does not disappoint, and that it is up to expectations of the high quality of Wheeler's musicianship would be grave understatement. Defying Gravity is a stunning portrait of an artist at midlife; at the top of her game.
Opening with the lovely, melancholy Since You've Been Gone, we are immediately swept up into the rich melody of a song describing loss in the most personal way:
And those of us who have lived long enough to have lost a loved one know how Wheeler has captured that feeling of a place in the heart which can never be filled. It is a wonderfully moving song.
One thing about Cheryl Wheeler that is often overlooked is her absolute joy in and celebration of the natural world. Driving Home and When Fall Comes to New England are two Wheeler classics in this vein. Now come Little Road, an observation of the beauty of the rural, northeastern landscape, and Summer's Almost Over, a tender, lovely paean to the gift of an all too brief New England summer. Through her vivid lyrics we take a walk through fields and rivers, quiet creeks, sleeping cats, grazing deer, blue sky and fading light. And with Wheeler as our guide, we happily go along.
In Beyond the Lights Wheeler turns her considerable skills to the world as seen by those "who slipped so far beyond the lights." Kenny White plays an eloquent piano beautifully backing Wheeler's poignant vocal, searching for what could have been.
Wheeler rarely covers the work of other songwriters, so it's a pleasure to hear her sing Jesse Winchester's Defying Gravity, the title track. With its Caribbean beat and simple lyric describing the view from the "big round ball" we call planet Earth, it calls to mind both the highs and lows of daily life. Lucy Kaplansky adds her distinctive voice to the mix as well as Duke Levine's artistry on electric guitar.
Few have the observational gifts and the ability to describe the human character in the small, pointed details that fall off the pen of Cheryl Wheeler in songs like Alice. It is a character study, a story song about a woman who has forged a new life for herself after her husband has died and her children have left home. There is strength here as well as wisdom. And we carefully listen to the wonderful melody and delightful detail of a beautifully written song about a woman we do not know, but wish we did.
The funny, clever Cheryl Wheeler comes out in force in her "tributes" to the corruption of classical music themes in the various cellphone ringtones on It's the Phone, as well as the foibles of flying in On the Plane. Both have been recorded live at the Bottom Line in New York. For those who have not heard Wheeler live, these cuts will give you a flavor of Wheeler's comic flair, and what draws the audience in again and again.
Defying Gravity is an essential purchase for everyone who loves good music. In parts rich and deep, funny and touching, there are classics in the making as well as new things to laugh and sigh about. But most of all Wheeler succeeds in touching our emotions and in making the ordinary details of our lives extraordinary. Defying Gravity is the latest work of a master singer and songwriter. Take a listen.
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