It's Good, Eve

Vonda Shepard

Vesper Alley Records, 1996

http://www.vondashepard.com

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/23/1998

The world made its acquaintance with quirky young attorney Ally McBeal and soulful singer-songwriter Vonda Shepard at almost the same instant.

During one of the still, charged interludes early in the pilot for this TV season's "It" show, as Ally broods, a piano takes up a soft, purposeful melody in the background, marking and framing the moment to perfection. Gradually, the piano is joined by a gently ascending chant from a remarkable female voice. The chant is deceptively simple - "La la la LA la la la la"- but the range of feeling conveyed in its steady rise and fall is fairly astounding. Melancholy, grit, vulnerability, hard-earned wisdom... Vonda Shepard packs more emotional evidence into her vocal interpretation of these eight "la"s than most heavy metal screamers cram into hundred-minute double albums.

The snippet is from the song "Maryland," the captivating lead-off from Shepard's 1996 album my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 It's Good Eve, and hearing it, you're left wondering how someone with such an obvious gift could really have spent the better part of the last fifteen years beating on the doors of success and not getting an answer (the album is her third, on her second label, in eight years). The singer-songwriter's best pre- Ally gig was singing back-up and opening for Jackson Browne on his '96 tour, which isn't bad until you consider she's his equal as a composer and his superior in front of a microphone.

Shepard is something of a vocal athlete whose home field advantage is clearly a quiet smoky L.A. bar late in the evening. At least, that's where rumor has it that Ally creator/executive producer David Kelley's wife Michelle Pfeiffer "discovered" her. As a result, she is now playing a kind of mirror-game with reality, getting regular air time on the show as the house singer in the bar where "Ally"'s cast of attorneys hangs out after hours, singing her own tunes and a passel of familiar covers, some of which likely date from her own club act. (The irony, of course, is that her portrayal of a nightclub singer on a successful TV show has undoubtedly propelled her into the medium-sized theater category already.)

Shepard's specialty - other than a tone-shifting vibrato that's remarkably evocative when not overused - is the sharply realized, even raw slice of romantic life. On songs like "A Lucky Life," "Like a Hemisphere" and "Hotel Room View" she matches strong piano and acoustic guitar melodies with knowing observations that cut just the right stance to act as a sort of on-screen Greek chorus to the perpetually flustered McBeal. "Grain of Sand" is equally observant and quite interesting musically, with its distinctly psychedelic vocal ascensions and swirls.

"Maryland" is where her gift shines the brightest, though, as she crafts a starkly honest look at her own pre-"Ally" life or something very much like it: "Never worry about what I did wrong / And that I'll never be what my daddy wanted me to be / And I'll never see what my mama's dreams were / But I will sing..."

It's been a long struggle for Vonda Shepard, but one that serves her well as she plays the voice of the wise older sister to the dazed-and-confused Ally. And when the Ally McBeal soundtrack comes out later this spring, it'll earn her a well-deserved hit album, too.

Rating: B+

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© 1998 Christopher Thelen 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 Vesper Alley Records, and is used for informational purposes only.