- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2005

Cheryl Wheeler

Defying Gravity

Philo Records

Liner-note acknowledgments typically aren’t much to look at, but there’s a jewel of a thank-you on singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler’s absorbing new album, “Defying Gravity.”

Recounting a levity-restoring conversation with a friend: “Is the record too gloomy? I mean, it opens with ‘A woman my age/sittin’ here crying,’ and then, five songs in, I say, ‘Summer’s almost over and I’m crying, but I don’t know why.’ ”

Friend: “Cause you’re a big baby, that’s why.”

“Gravity,” Miss Wheeler’s first studio release in six years, isn’t quite gloomy, but it isn’t cheery, either. The Timonium, Md., native’s rich, Mary Chapin Carpenter-like alto, accompanied by the gentle filigree of acoustic guitar and peaceful percussion, tells confessional stories about lost love, working moms and wearied middle age.

“Since You’ve Been Gone” speaks of lost love, but it’s familial rather than romantic: “I’m still that nervous ninth grader/Watching you pull us together, I never knew how.” Pastoral poems such as “Little Road” and “Summer’s Almost Over” notice nature’s beauty, but it’s invariably autumn, never spring.

The title track, a rare cover for Miss Wheeler, was written by Vietnam draft exile Jesse Winchester, and it offers this mordant take on existence: “I’m riding a big round ball/I never do dream I may fall/And even the high must lay low/When I do fall, I’ll be glad to go.”

Such is the “big baby” part of “Gravity.” But Miss Wheeler is also, thankfully, a wag.

A pair of live tracks spliced into the set poke fun at the classical music ring tones of cell phones (“It’s the Phone”) and the beastliness of air travel (“On the Phone”). Miss Wheeler’s casually conversant introductions to these songs are hilarious, which won’t surprise fans of her live shows.

Then there is “Here Come Floyd,” a Rat Pack-y pull of the middle finger at saturation coverage of the weather. With the titular hurricane bearing down on the East Coast from Florida to Maine, Miss Wheeler and a special someone negotiate a mind-altering way to pass the time. “Do you want to? Well, all right/But if we do, we’ll munch all night.”

That’s one way of defying gravity, something this album does well, if not quite often enough.a

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