Independent release, 2015
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/28/2015
Fame can be a fluky thing. One minute you’re a bar-band singer with a couple of albums on a small independent label, and the next you’re a fixture on a hit TV show for five years. And then the show gets canceled... now what?
If you’re two-time Golden Globe and Emmy award winner Vonda Shepard, whom TV producer David Kelley discovered in a Los Angeles nightclub and installed as the house band / musical muse / Greek chorus for the title character in his hit 1997-2002 dramedy series Ally McBeal, you keep doing what you’ve always done. You sing, you write, you record—okay, and maybe run off and take a major role in a stage production of Randy Newman’s Faust: The Concert, too, just because you can—but then you come back and sing and write and record some more.
There’s no mystery as to why Kelley and his wife Michele Pfeiffer were blown away by what they heard in that LA club back in the mid-90s; Shepard’s rangy, expressive voice is instantly memorable, and she invests herself a hundred percent in every song she sings. On the show she was mostly asked to perform covers of vintage radio singles, which worked especially well when they were Motown classics, a natural fit for a white soul artist with a big voice and more than a little Tina Turner in her musical DNA.
Separate from the show, Shepard’s piano-based soul-pop has tended toward singer-songwriter introspection with a strong rhythm and blues undercurrent, and she’s crafted some compelling individual moments, but beyond the theme song for Ally McBeal (the terrific “Searchin’ My Soul”), she hasn’t often connected with a big audience. Rookie, Shepard’s 14th studio album, took the route you see more and more middle-tier artists taking these days, raising funds not from a record label, but from her fans, via Kickstarter.
Rookie is a relatively brief album of nine new songs and two live tracks that nonetheless offers a solid representation of Shepard’s style, while benefitting from the clean, tasteful production of longtime collaborator Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Crowded House, Suzanne Vega).
Opener “Need Your Love” is a bluesy shuffle featuring Hammond organ and Shepard providing her own background vocal chorus. You can hear the tigress in her voice as she wails: “What you’ll find out here baby, is I’m as strong as I say / Though I got my troubles, I push them out of the way…” Next in line, “Turn It Up” shifts gears smartly, adopting a funky, sultry edge for a snappy tune with a touch of Philly in the arrangement.
The Tina Turner reference point comes to the fore with “I Just Don’t Get It,” a tension-filled mid-tempo number about struggling to break through and reach an emotionally distant partner. “I just don’t get enough of you,” she pleads over a haunting piano melody and a steady blues foundation of guitar, bass and drums. It’s a hunger for connection that’s never fulfilled, and Shepard sings the hell out of it.
The mellower, more contemplative middle section of the album features a pair of plaintive, nostalgic piano ballads in “Saturday” and “Long For The Days,” before “Walk On The Water” revs things up again with a snappy, sassy, “I will survive” kind of message song with a genuine strut to it.
The soul influence comes through strongest on the title track, a great ensemble piece led by what feels like a classic Motown bass line, nimble and propulsive and relentless. There’s more than a little Aretha Franklin in Shepard’s fierce declaration that “I’m not a rookie”—I know what I’m doing and you’d better not underestimate me.
By contrast, “Train To Inverness” is an agonized piano ballad with serial rhymes that stretch it a bit but mostly work, culminating in a sharp kiss-off to a self-centered lover: “When all we built was scattered / When all that we laid down was tattered / Baby, all you felt was flattered / ’Cause somebody loved you liked it mattered…” and then the kicker: “Wave goodbye ’cause I am over this.” “Tell My Body” closes out the studio portion of the album on a gentle note with a bit of a gospel feel to the arrangement.
The two live cuts (“Roll In The Dirt” and “Downtown, Dirtytown”) are a nicely contrasting pair, the former a mid-tempo wallow in nostalgia (“I just want to roll in the dirt of my youth”) and the latter a big, sassy, full-band soul workout. Both show off the precision chops and great feel her band (Jim Hanson on bass, James Ralston on guitars, and Michael Urbano on drums) has for this music, crafting a solid musical foundation for Shepard’s memorable voice.
Widespread fame might be in the rearview mirror for Shepard, but that doesn’t appear to bother her in the least. Rookie is filled with the same terrific white-soul chops and fierce commitment to every song that landed Vonda Shepard in the spotlight in the first place. And the Kickstarter model offers her a chance to reward the loyalty of longtime fans with another round of strong new tunes from the muse herself.