Heart and Soul : New songs from Ally McBeal (featuring Vonda Shepard)
The fall television schedule of 1999 witnessed a curious event that, in retrospect, was as novel in its concept as it was stunning in its stupidity: the brains behind the wildly successful series, Ally McBeal, decided to spin off of their own series with a series of reprised scenes and out-takes. This Frankenstein's monster with the less than inspirational moniker, Ally, was met by the viewing public with profound indifference and was hastily withdrawn before any serious erosion of the parent show's fan base could occur.
Now comes the release of Heart And Soul: New Songs From Ally McBeal (Featuring Vonda Shepard). Too bad that saner heads did not prevail in this case as well; unfortunately, CDs cannot be withdrawn, and, even though this olio of retreads and reprises will probably not hurt Miss Shepard's reputation all that much, it will undoubtedly do precious little to enhance her career, either. As such, it shows remarkably little evidence of heart and exudes not much that can be mistaken for soul.
The opus is problematic on several counts. There is the undisguised similarity to the 1998 release, Songs From Ally McBeal, also featuring Ms. Shepard. The packaging, having turned double platinum with vigorous sales that topped the two million mark, has obviously spurred its creators to a vainglorious attempt to recreate the ingredients that led to financial and critical rewards. Even the artwork, a collage of cast members interspersed with a few photos of Miss Shepard, is monotonously repetitious. Indeed, Shepard is joined on the cover by Calista Flockhart in a none too subtle attempt to attract the eye of the prospective buyer. Love Ally? Buy Vonda! The material itself is, like the earlier CD, a concoction consisting of nine cover songs - songs that vary from the highly recognizable, Roy Orbison's Crying for example, to obscure homage to lesser known works such as the Isley Brothers' This Old Heart of Mine - and five original Vonda Shepard tunes. This doesn't sound all that appalling, but wait!
The cover tunes are lifted from the sound track of the television program where they are used to underscore themes, accentuate plot developments and enhance the emotions of the characters. In such a context, they are quite effective dramatic constructs. It is dangerous to remove them from their settings. There may be two possible goals to which an artist aspires when bringing cover versions to the attention of the listeners: either the artist worshipfully clones the original song to remind us how truly magnificent it was, or the artist validates the endeavor by bringing something original and refreshing to the interpretation. Sadly, on this occasion, Shepard rarely does either. Numbers such as What Becomes of the Broken Hearted and World Without Love are fine songs, to be sure, yet, once these songs are removed from the framework of the television show, they become dull and ponderous snippets of ennui at their worst, and minor curiosities at their best.
To refer to the remaining five songs as "original" is somewhat of a distortion since only one of them, Read Your Mind, is presented on this package for the first time anywhere. It is a pleasant enough song, moderately paced by a sweet vocal and the standard blend of guitar and piano accompaniment; it is, however, faintly damned by being a "nice" song, and not one of Miss Shepard's best. The other four Shepard-penned numbers are actually reprises of tunes that appear elsewhere in her catalogue; Baby, Don't You Break My Heart Slow is a why-bother remake of a song that appears on not one but TWO previous CDs. She originally recorded (and released) 100 Tears Away eight years ago. Such creative bankruptcy is lamentable.
Most distressing to this reviewer is the utter lack of regard for the integrity of the original material, especially in two instances. To Sir, With Love, which became To You With Love for the television show, is presented here in its revised form. While this might have made sense in its original dramatic context, it is unjustifiable on this CD. Worse, Don McLean's hauntingly exquisite classic, Vincent (Starry Starry Night), is surgically altered by having its last verse amputated, thus meaninglessly contradicting the sense and sensibility of the original composition. It would have been far more rational to restore these two numbers to their original forms.
Although there are some pleasant moments on the release (a soulful rendition of Someday We'll Be Together, and the original but reprised This Is Crazy Now come to mind), Heart And Soul ultimately is a major disappointment. It is the counsel of this reviewer, a long-time fan of Miss Shepard, that, if you find yourself with coinage in hand pondering purchase of this CD, you pass over this mess and grab instead Miss Shepard's previous work, the lush, mature and original By 7:30. Therein you will find a strong pulse and enough soul to make you forget this bump in Vonda Shepard's promising road.
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