Cheryl Hoenemeyer,
Crowded Bed
(Voxtrot, 2001)

Cheryl Hoenemeyer's second CD, Crowded Bed, comes with an impressive pedigree. Hot on the heels of her debut Dark Horse, the second album from the Merrimac, Maryland singer promises more of the fine songwriting that earned her honours from (among others) the Kerrville Folk Festival and WUMB radio. In Crowded Bed you'll find heartfelt vocals, strong musicianship and intriguing lyrics. Yet for me, Crowded Bed just doesn't feel comfortable.

Let's start with the good stuff. First, Hoenemeyer's voice. It's original and honest, with an emotional quaver that reminds me of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Canada's Sylvia Tyson. She delivers her songs with genuine emotion and writes with detail and depth. Her press material says her songs are "driven by lyrics, steered by piano," and that's accurate. Lyrically, her songs are quite dense, full of deft observations on life and love. The album starts off strong with "I'm getting tired of this chip on your shoulder/Doesn't make you look pretty, in fact it makes you look older" and is full of equally perceptive lines.

Unfortunately, the weight of all these words seems to overwhelm the melodies, which are somewhat gentle and tentative. Hoenemeyer's piano work, like her lyrics, is intricate and sophisticated -- but the songs themselves could be better.

My suspicion is that Hoenemeyer is a better writer than she is an editor. Many songs are longer than four minutes when they really don't need to be. With a little tweaking, some of these good songs could truly be great. In "Angela," for instance, there's the line "We are angels in disguise." The first time I listened, I thought for sure it would be the chorus/title line -- but no. Why not? Is it loyalty to the truth of the story? Fear of commercial songwriting techniques? In the end, the only thing that matters is whether or not the song succeeds. In this case the line stayed with me but the song did not.

From the sound of the album, it looks like Hoenemeyer is aiming for mainstream commercial success. On the production front, Crowded Bed definitely succeeds. Co-producers Seth Connelly and Eric Kilburn (who also produced Dark Horse) have given Hoenemeyer's songs a radio-friendly roots-rock treatment, with creative touches like pennywhistle and clarinet in just the right places. As much as the notable Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter), Billy Novick, Matt Glaser and Greg Greenway deserve mention, kudos should go to Connelly for his steady proficiency on electric guitar, mandolin and bass.

Many of Hoenemeyer's lyrics are vivid and perceptive ("She has a miner's eye, sees gold in every heart"). But to really deliver these lines to the listener, the songs themselves could be strengthened both in melody and (dare I say it) "hook." Personal, individualistic songwriters sometimes worry about being "commercial" -- as if simplicity and memorability might somehow weaken their message. But in Hoenemeyer's case I think a more commercial approach might help her get her beautiful ideas across.

[ by Joy McKay ]
Rambles: 19 January 2002