Ally McBeal

Vonda Shepard

Sony Music, 1998

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


There must have been days in the last two years when Vonda Shepard woke up in the morning and had to pinch herself to make sure she wasn't still dreaming.

There she was, practically a walking cliché: an LA-based aspiring singer-songwriter with a trio of largely-ignored CDs, dropped by a major label (Warner) and left staring down the barrel of a life of singing late-night sets in smoky little bars for not enough money. And then one night, she impresses someone in the crowd with her act, that person comes back, and back again and again, they eventually strike up a conversation, and BOOM, she's the one-woman musical backdrop for the hottest new TV series of the 1997-98 season.

Yeah, sure. A script that trite and implausible would get round-filed by any producer in Hollywood. Except it's true. "Someone in the crowd," it turns out, was David Kelley, creator/writer/producer of the cultural phenomenon known as Ally McBeal.

Not that this happy happenstance should be taken to imply Shepard lacks talent -- her big, rangy, versatile voice is somehow also immediately intimate, like an old friend you don't quite remember but feel comfortable with instantly. It's a classic white-soul voice in the Joni Mitchell vein, albeit rendered with a unique, athletic approach to melody.

Shepard's recording history prior to McBeal includes an uneven trio of CDs released over seven years, with 1996's my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 It's Good Eve on tiny VesperAlley Records being by far the most fully conceived and well-executed of the bunch. Two songs from the latter album ("Maryland" and "The Wildest Times of the World") are among the four Shepard originals included on the McBeal disc, with the remainder consisting of covers.

On the show, Shepard's music generally performs the function of a Greek chorus/big sister foil played off against Ally's personal foibles, always offering a subtly observant or prodding lyric to cap off a scene or episode. The songs featured here are an all-star lineup of romantically-inclined pop and soul tunes from the late 50s and early 60s, hand-picked by Kelley for their appropriateness to different story-lines and themes. "Ask The Lonely," "Hooked On a Feeling," "Tell Him," "It's In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)" and "I Only Want To Be With You" are among the more familiar ones. While hearing these classics recast Shepard-style can be a little jarring in some cases, the combination of the energy she invests in them and her soaring delivery often brings them a new shine.

What interested me in researching this review was the fact that Ally fans appear to have a decidedly mixed take on Vonda -- some think her voice is an integral part of the show's atmosphere, while others feel she's overstayed her welcome. Admittedly, her somewhat idiosyncratic delivery, ranging from breathy whispers to note-skipping roars that could give Celine Dion pause, can be an acquired taste. But from my vantage point, her aggressive approach is an essential reflection of the emotion she invests in each song. With It's Good Eve and now Songs From Ally McBeal, she's made me a fan.

A clear highlight of the disc is the show's theme song -- the 1992 Shepard original "Searchin' My Soul" -- whose Ally-to-a-"t" lyric is vastly energized in this incarnation by a fresh arrangement and re-mix. Still, my favorite here remains the disc-closing Shepard original, "Maryland." Used in the very first episode of McBeal to great effect, this frankly autobiographical ballad of self-assessment takes the measure of a person who has heady goals for herself but is still learning to tackle them one step at a time. The by-play between Shepard's warm, soulful vocal and her expertly tempo-ed piano underneath makes for a moving piece of songcraft.

To sum up our story -- for now, anyway -- in the space of less than two years, Shepard has gone from a piano-bar mainstay to a household name with a platinum album. She's the Cinderella of bar chanteuses, the ultimate icon -- ironically enough -- of women like the character played by Shepard friend / Kelley spouse Michele Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. I hope she enjoys her hard-earned ride.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1999 Jason Warburg 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 Sony Music, and is used for informational purposes only.