AOM Logo August 1998


Vonda Shepard : The Radical Light
Reprise Records (1992)
Playing time: 49:53


Songs from Ally McBeal (Featuring Vonda Shepard)
Sony Music Soundtrax
Playing time: 43:07


D. Malcolm Fairbrother

Songs from Ally McBeal - Cover Image

The audience is listening. Buying, as well, if we are to believe the evidence at the local music emporium, where five of their listed top-twenty CDs are soundtracks from recently released motion pictures. This is hardly noteworthy, as many CD collections harbor soundtracks composed of era-worn oldies hand-picked to evoke a particular time and place concomitant with the theme of the movie, or a smattering of B-sides from the nouveau popular chart dwellers whose inclusion magnetizes the younger consumer. But television has somehow remained the vein that has not been mined successfully with any regularity...until now.

Vonda Shepard, through a combination of hard work and good fortune, has found a unique and profitable way to tap into this vein, charting with Searching My Soul, the theme song from the critically acclaimed David E. Kelley television hit, Ally McBeal. Certainly, the occasional theme song catches the collective fancy of the audience and generates a frenzied but short outburst of consumer activity; Shepard, moreover, is also faring quite well with the accompanying sound track, Songs From Ally McBeal, Featuring Vonda Shepard. This reviewer, being somewhat curious about Miss Shepard's past work, has chosen to take a close listen to The Radical Light, a CD released in 1992, before commenting any further on the McBeal collection.

It is always risky to peer back into the body of work of a freshly discovered artist. A career followed chronologically allows one to witness the artistic development unfold naturally as creativity blossoms and musicianship sharpens with the unfolding of time. The Radical Light shines from a distance of six years since its recording, but this reviewer has strove to treat this work with the scrutiny and attention that would be given to a CD issued today. It has been a nearly impossible task. Looking back to where Vonda was serves as a constant reminder of where Vonda is. The first song on The Radical Light is Searchin' My Soul, albeit a somewhat different rendition of the McBeal theme. Thematically, the song expresses a cautious optimism found by learning from past mistakes; the earlier version, carried by a lilting rhythm guitar and underscored by Shepard's smooth piano licks, seems to have its eye on past mistakes, whereas the McBeal theme, given its insistent electric lead riffs, a strengthened back-up chorus, and a more insistent tempo, expresses the profound optimism of the future. Although the former is a worthy piece of writing, it is the latter that catches the listener's imagination, getting caught in that segment of the brain that leads to the humming of melodies at the oddest of times. The second number, The Radical Light, amplifies the themes and images that loosely connect the ten compositions, all written or co-written by Ms Shepard: the light of love and experience will illuminate the path that will ultimately take us 'home'. An R'n'B groove building steadily to a touch of the power of gospel lends a sincerity to this piece that amplifies Shepard's message without bludgeoning the listener with simplistic clichés.

The third track, 100 Tears Away, is another bridge between this older material and the television show; the title is also shared by a McBeal episode (wherein a smidgen of the song was also heard), and the song itself reputedly is inspirational to writer-producer David E. Kelley. A piano intro subtly blends with a soft acoustic guitar to lead the listener into a ballad of powerful encouragement that uplifts the heart lyrically as the instrumentation slowly builds. Wake Up The House reiterates the same theme, but with a more upbeat tempo, and an increasingly layered, but nonetheless, infectious chorus. These first four songs are strongly interwoven thematically, yet reveal a talent that is comfortably displayed in four distinct styles. Unfortunately, Clean Rain is a mere pop song in the style of Brandy or Mariah Carey, and a mediocre pop song at best. The lyrics are a string of clichés that, no matter how well sung, say little of interest. Ms. Shepard's voice, now soaring, now swooping, is indeed full of sound and fury; Shakespeare enthusiasts may now complete the sentence. Dreamin' is a much more interesting number, a pop and R'n'B fusion that tiptoes into the neighborhood of Hip Hop to borrow a cup of flavor, then rides a funky groove off into a hypnotic fade-out. Good To Yourself is also a rhythmically interesting, blues-tinged song that seems uncertain if it should be a ballad or a soul song, and settles for meshing the two styles. Love Will Come And Go is another piece that rides a strong groove into a polished techno-funk landscape. Although a diversity of styles makes for an intriguing listen, this also suggests that Vonda Shepard, at least on this opus, was searching for her musical style by trying anything. Out On The Town can be readily dismissed as a weak entry that is mere filler; but the final song, Cartwheels, with its string of stark images and Beatle-lyric references riding atop a moody piano and a poignant cello, returns to the themes and the style of earlier voice. Ms. Shepard has produced an interesting CD to be sure, but it is easy to see why it escaped the attention of the average format-radio programmer. Call it a must-hear, but only for the fans.

Vonday Shepard - The Radical Light Cover Image

The Radical Lightdoes serve as an aural explanation of how Ms Shepard has journeyed from relative obscurity to overnight sensation in only nine years, and after three widely unheralded releases. Perhaps it was a genuine admiration of her versatility that caught David E. Kelley's attention and became his rationale for using her music in Ally McBeal. This CD is comprised in the main of Shepard's interpretations of old standards, most of which were hugely successful in their earlier incarnations, and a smattering of original compositions, all of them revealing Ms Shepard as a much more mature talent at this stage of her career.

Ms Shepard has admitted in interview that the choice of musical material falls entirely within David E. Kelley's domain. Each selection is meant to underscore some point of plot or bathe characters in emotional nuance, and it is to Ms Shepard's immense benefit that she is able to seize such war horses as Hooked On A Feeling, and It's In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song) firmly by the reins and ride them confidently into her own territory. The former title is presented here as a sincere love song, its pace slowed to a much more dignified stroll than Blue Swede's frenetic original which came across as if it were sung by a cocaine-fueled second rate lounge act, which, given the state of music in the 70's, it probably was. The original is familiar to McBeal fans as the musical accompaniment to the Ooga-Chukka spear-chucking hallucinatory dancing baby. Shoop Shoop mirrors the original where others might mock, finding success in its sincerity. Other covers that benefit from Ms Shepard's effective interpretations include Skeeter Davis' 1962 hit The End Of The World, and Dusty Springfield's I Only Want To Be With You, which, in Ms. Shepard's grasp, becomes a wistfully plaintive appeal instead of the over-the-top rocker it was in 1964. Walk Away Renee and lesser known vehicles such as The Four Tops' Ask The Lonely and the Leiber-Stoller penned Neighborhood, competently rendered with an effective balance of risk and respect, help round out the collection.

Four noteworthy original compositions are included in the package. The previously discussed theme song is the strongest entry, but only by a whisker. Shepard has served as a back-up singer to artists as diverse as Rickie Lee Jones and Jackson Browne, and has learned lessons from both of these experiences. The Wildest Times Of The World is as soulful as any song on The Radical Light, but is beautifully and evocatively original in its lyric and its presentation, especially in its hauntingly layered refrain. A ragged rhythm of minor chords drives the moderately countrified Will You Marry Me? while Ms Shepard performs dexterous vocal leaps all around the chorus. The final song on this collection is the introspective Maryland which finds the singer thinking of home with bitter-sweet nostalgia. It provides the CD with a fittingly strong conclusion.

Vonda Shepard is currently touring in support of these two CDs, playing clubs and medium-sized venues. The fall will find her in the studio recording a collection of all-new material. Given the maturity of her recent songs and the craftsmanship in evidence on both of these works, this reviewer awaits its release with optimistic anticipation.


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