Friday, January 31, 2014

Gravity: Defying Gravity


When released in early 2005, dreamy electric guitar tones opened the 44-minute "Defying Gravity," singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler's first studio album since 1999. It was interesting that she chose to title the entire album with the only track that she didn’t write herself – Jesse Winchester’s “Defying Gravity” at track six on her album. 
While a singer/songwriter could fall into the trap of rushing out mediocre material to meet self-imposed deadlines, Cheryl's didn’t rush out with “Defying Gravity.” Like Winchester, she’s also known for masterfully crafted songs with colorful lyrics color and intriguing auralscapes. Some of her songs are somber meditations about life, and the “Defying Gravity” CD's jacket gives us all the lyrics to read and reflect upon.
Sung from the heart, Cheryl's themes revolve around loneliness brought on by the death of her father ("Since You've Been Gone"), heartache ("Must Be Sinking Now"), and inner turmoil ("Beyond the Lights"). "Summer's Almost Over" is a sad nostalgic tale of a season changing and time passing. "On the Plane" and "It's the Phone" are both funny and cynical pieces that were recorded live at The Bottom Line in New York.
With wry wit, she's full of humorous lines like "The air that you're breathing's been re-circulating since Orville and Wilbur were boys..." And the song is nice respite even though it was dropped from her set list for quite some time following 9/11. “Alice" describes a hardworking Minnesota campground host and hotel desk clerk who is full of wanderlust. An instrumental, "Clearwater, Florida," allows Cheryl to showcase her fine and delicate fingerpicking.

Somewhat of a concept album, "Defying Gravity" has a more laid-back and somber tone than some previous releases. She seems more serene, thoughtful and introspective with this project. Tasteful use of guitar, percussion, bass, vibes and keyboards permeates the instrumentation.

"Defying Gravity" is a very strong album with plenty of good lyrics and music to ponder. After listening to a nostalgic closing piece like "Blessed," one will want to reflect upon their own childhood memories and of Jesus and his love. Cheryl Wheeler succeeds in motivating, inspiring and entertaining us with her music. And doesn’t every struggling singer/songwriter have a goal of “defying gravity” to succeed in a rough musical environment? Well she clearly has, and now it’s clearer why she may have titled her 2005 album for that Jesse Winchester cover.     

Monday, January 27, 2014

Gravity: Top 5 Gravity Tunes of the Indie 80's

In the 1980's most indie rockers didn't dwell on love songs. To truly provide an alternative to the crap on mainstream radio, they had to sing songs about rain, the elements of earth, wind and fire... and gravity. The natural phenomenon" by which all physical bodies attract each other " was a good metaphor for the subjects of Michael Jackson and Madonna songs, but when indie rockers sang about gravity, it just sounded a whole lot more intelligent.

Here are the top 5 "Gravity" songs from the Indie 80's.

"Gravity is bringing me down..."

#5. New Zealand's Tall Dwarfs with "Gravity" from the Homestead sampler Human Music.

"Gravity blocks my screams..."

#4 Basketball Diaries memoirist Jim Carroll and his band's "Wicked Gravity" from Catholic Boy

"And Gravity don't mean a thing..."

#3. Talking Heads "I Get Wild/ Wild Gravity" from Speaking in Tongues.

"Gravity is pulling me around.."

#2. R.E.M. "Feeling Gravity's Pull" from Fables of the Reconstruction


"You can not move; you can not dance..."

#1 Pylon "Gravity" from Gyrate

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Gravity: Gravity by Barnaby Bright

Barnaby Bright: Gravity
[purchase the Gravity EP]
[purchase The Longest Day (which also has the song)]

Last weekend, I was sitting in a church meeting room listening to two musicians make truly wonderful music. This experience was shared by 25-30 people, and between sets, we were able to chat with them, and ate pot luck snacks. Tomorrow night, the Grammys will honor, for the most part, music that isn’t nearly as good as what I heard from Barnaby Bright last weekend, much of it made by acts that play before tens of thousands of fans at each performance. I know that music isn’t really a competition, and I know that the vagaries of fame has been a common theme of my writing here, but I guess it just galls me that bands such as Barnaby Bright are traveling around, playing churches and small venues, sleeping in fans’ houses to save money, while lesser talents have their own jets and probably complain about the thread count in their hotel’s sheets.

What does this have to do with gravity? I could try to argue that there is gravity in this situation, but that would be a stretch. In fact, I thought of this theme at the show last weekend, when Becky Bliss, one of the married couple that make up Barnaby Bright, introduced this song, and joked that every band has a song called “Gravity.” And while that may be hyperbole, I have 13 distinct songs with the word in the title in my iTunes library, which is a pretty fair amount.

The members of Barnaby Bright are originally from Kansas, who came together for good, personally and professionally, in New York, which is why you sometimes see them referred to as being from Brooklyn (I guess that also gives them some hipster cred. Maybe they would be more famous if Nathan Bliss grew a big shaggy beard, and they wore vintage clothing). Becky has a simply beautiful voice, and when I saw them, she also played keyboards, harmonium and baritone ukulele. Nathan sang harmony, played the guitar and percussion and managed all of their many effects. I understand that he also plays many other instruments. They write separately and together, and their songs have won many prestigious songwriting contests. At the show, they mentioned that they were moving to Nashville, and maybe that will help them get more notice.

“Gravity” is a wonderful song, written by Nathan. It was a finalist in the 2012 Mountain Stage NewSong Contest, which led to a performance on that venerable and respected syndicated radio show. It uses gravity, and related concepts such as falling and weight, as a metaphor for the experience of breaking up.

I’m sure that most people who read this blog—you know, the kind of people who are interested enough in music to read unknown writers opine about the subject—have played the game where you think of a favorite, lesser known band that sounds kind of like a more famous band, and wonder why their levels of popularity are so different. Playing here, I thought of The Civil Wars, a fine act, which like Barnaby Bright, features a man and a woman who write beautiful songs, and perform them beautifully. And I suspect that if I randomly played Civil Wars songs and Barnaby Bright songs for you, you might be able to tell them apart by sound, but not by quality. (It turns out that I’m not the only one—Google the bands’ names together and you will find a number of other people making the comparison).

In fact, The Civil Wars’ excellent breakthrough, Barton Hollow and the Barnaby Bright EP Gravity both appeared on Amazon’s Best Albums of 2011, a great achievement for any artist, when you consider all of the albums released each year. But Barton Hollow was number 5 (and won 2 Grammys) and Gravity was number 91. Interestingly, Barton Hollow has a song called “Falling,” which has a similar theme to “Gravity.” To these ears, both of these songs are of a similar, high quality. What do you think?