THE FIRST THING you notice about singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler in concert is her delightfully skewed sense of humor. But that's the last thing you're likely to notice on her new album, "Half a Book."

From start to finish, it's no laughing matter. It's a collection of mostly confessional ballads, songs of romantic yearning, despair and wanderlust. They're well written and well sung but curiously uncompelling.

Wheeler does this kind of thing very well; her songs are often powerfully ironic and never lapse into glib sentimentality. Several of the tunes, including "Emotional Response" and "I Don't Have the Time" have punchy arrangements that effectively showcase Wheeler's soulful voice. Yet a certain sameness in most of these tunes, an unwaveringly earnest tone, dulls their emotional edge.

Priscilla Herdman, another talented singer and songwriter but one with a more folkish bent, fares better on "Darkness Into Light." Herdman possesses a lovely refined soprano that's well-suited to the largely traditional songs she's gathered here. While several arrangements gently emphasize the more lyrical side of her delivery, also included is a defiant and stirring a cappella version of "Ain't I a Woman." The subtle embellishments by guitarist Artie Traum, fiddler Jay Ungar and cellist Abby Newton are another plus. CHERYL WHEELER -- "Half A Book" (Cypress Records).

Priscilla Herdman "Darkness Into Light" (Flying Fish 420).

Both appearing Saturday at the Birchmere.