Sylvia Hotel

Cheryl Wheeler

Philo Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Eureka - I think I've found the female Loudon Wainwright III!

New England-based folk artist Cheryl Wheeler is part balladeer, part social critic, and part clown. When all three styles merge on album, the results are sure to be memorable. Her latest release, Sylvia Hotel, is a prime example of that - though the comic moments are the ones that stand out for me.

As a balladeer, Wheeler's work is pleasant enough to listen to, but it doesn't have a sense of urgency that makes it stick out in the listener's mind. Tracks like "Rainy Road Into Atlanta," "Lighting Up The Mighty Mississippi" and "His Hometown" are executed well and written well, so you won't find me trying to poke holes into them. But it seems like it takes more than one listen for songs like these to really embed themselves into your head - though once they're in there, it's a nice sensation.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

As the social critic, Wheeler always runs the risk of mixing humor with a serious message. Prime example: "If It Were Up To Me," a song that someone should call to Rosie O'Donnell's attention. (I'd appreciate it, if someone actually does tell her about it, to add in that we suggested it. I'll do anything for a free promo on national TV.) If Wheeler wasn't careful, the constant litany of "Maybe it's..." that make up the body of the song could quickly run into humorous veins. But when the message of the song finally shows up, it's a serious one: "If it were up to me, I'd take away the guns." (Don't bother flaming me if you're pro-gun; I didn't write the song.)

As a clown, Wheeler is a lot of fun to listen to. I mean, who else would think of writing a song about the noble potato and putting it to the tune of "Mexican Hat Dance", all the while playing with the rhythmic structure of the word "potato"? Likewise, "Unworthy" is a fun ditty that parodies how busy our lives are (and how we made them that way). On a lesser scale, "Meow" is a track that examines the pleasure and mystery of owning a cat. It's not knee-slap funny, but if you own or ever owned a cat, you'll understand.

For all of this, Wheeler makes the huge mistake of going into "hidden track" territory, a mistake made bigger by the fact that the track - a scathing, irreverent commentary about modern banking today - is a track that didn't deserve to be hidden. In future pressings of this album, I sure hope someone comes to their senses and lists this track (as well as cuts out the two minutes of silence that preceeds it) and gives this song its well-earned day in the sun.

Like Wainwright, Wheeler has incredible talents that occasionally get hidden by material that doesn't stand out the way that it should. Still, Sylvia Hotel is an album that is well worth your time and money, and should (if there were justice in the world) catapault Wheeler into the mainstream.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Philo Records, and is used for informational purposes only.