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On a Desert Island (01/28/2000) Write to CD Shakedown
Counting CrowsCounting Crows, This Desert Life (Geffen Records 1999) - The Counting Crows sound better than ever on This Desert Life. With self-evident confidence in the studio, the band shifts into an effortless rock groove for its third studio LP.

Though now located in L.A., the Counting Crows began performing together ten years ago while living in the Bay Area (their hometown). Their debut album, August and Everything After (1993) included the monster single, "Mr. Jones." The band followed with Recovering the Satellites (1996) and a two-disk live set, Across a Wire.

The bandIn addition to lead vocalist Adam Duritz (who has drawn comparisons to the early Van Morrison), the band includes David Bryson and Dan Vickrey on guitars and vocals, Charles Gillingham on keyboards, Matt Malley on bass, and Ben Mize on drums.

The album opens with the electrified "Hangingaround," which builds from the strength of the Wallflowers. This is the sound that Grant Lee Buffalo has been trying to find for years, without success.

Adam DuritzLong on solid riffs and a great studio sound, Adam Duritz has seemingly shed the melancholia that has dogged some of his songs, and instead emerges unquestionably as his own man.

The new album was co-produced by David Lowery (who has worked with Sparklehorse and Lauren Hoffman) and Dennis Herring (who has worked with Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven), and was recorded "in yet another house on a hill in Hollywood."

ArtworkI was ready to write-off the Counting Crows, but kept hearing good things about This Desert Life, and especially Adam Duritz, who has a terrific songwriting knack - he creates image-filled songs (such as "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby"), and intersperses them with his 20-something musings on life.

This Desert Life is the kind of rock record every band in L.A. wants to record. Jam on "Four Days" or "St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream" and tell me I'm wrong. Swirling organ fills, sweet mandolin fills, and open compression make for a great, accessible sound.

A dog's lifePet peeve - I am fed up with hidden tracks, of which This Desert Life is guilty. Take out the five minutes of dead space separating the songs, and give the hidden track separate billing.

The hidden track on This Desert Life is one of the strongest songs in the album, and highlights how the group has taken the reigns handed down by John Mellencamp and his countrified roots-rock sound (with an emphasis on rock).

If you dig the studio sound of Mitch Froom or Daniel Lanois, you'll be magnetized by This Desert Life.

More Ally McBealVonda Shepard, Heart and Soul: New Songs from Ally McBeal (Epic 1999) - Singer Vonda Shepard hitched her wagon to a lucky star with "Ally McBeal." The show is a bona fide hit, and Shepard has become a star in her own right.

On her second collection of songs from Ally McBeal, Shepard performs more of her original material, which is a pleasant change from the cover-oriented first collection.

Shepard was born in New York, but has spent most of her life in Los Angeles, where her career got off to a fast start as a member of Rickie Lee Jones' touring band. Vonda also sang and played keyboards with Al Jarreau, and sang with Jackson Browne on several tours.

Vonda ShepardNow with six albums to her credit (including the terrific 1996 release, It's Good, Eve), Vonda returned to her original hometown of New York for a year, during which she wrote many of the songs included on Heart and Soul. Recalls Vonda, "It was exciting and lonely and productive . . . It was everything."

Five of the fourteen tracks on Heart and Soul are originals written by Vonda Shepard, including "Read Your Mind" and "One Hundred Tears Away." The album's first single is "Baby Don't You Break My Heart Slow," a duet with Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls. This song first appeared on Shepard's debut solo album, and was re-recorded for her recent By 7:30 collection.

From the show Vonda's band includes guitarist, Val McCallum (who has toured with Natalie Merchant, Peter Gabriel and Seal), ex-Cracker bassist, Davey Faragher, keyboardist, Jeff Young (a long time member of Jackson Browne's band), and drummer Pete Thomas (from the Attractions).

The album's best tracks are a duet version of "To Sir, With Love" with Al Green laying down an effortless harmony track, and a thoughtful cover of "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)" by Don McLean (the other good song on the American Pie LP.)

Other favorite tunes on hand include "This Old Heart of Mine" (originally recorded by the Isley Brothers), "Someday We'll Be Together" (Diana Ross & the Supremes) and "World Without Love" (a 1964 song by Lennon and McCartney that was recorded by Peter and Gordon).

Vonda ShepardShepard says her personal style is a far cry from Ally's tailored image. "Being on-camera has been a learning process," she admits. "I am more of a human, natural kind of writer, not someone who has every hair in place, so having makeup people fussing around me all the time is challenging. But on the other hand, the character I play as myself, and singing and playing and writing is what I live for."

Shepard also admits to a challenging schedule. "It feels like karaoke night on the set sometimes. I'll get a call two nights or a night before to record three or four songs in one day. I think all those years of working toward this has prepared me for the task - thank goodness!"

Vonda Shepard has worked hard for her success, and deserves her accolades. Have fun with Heart and Soul.

Pack up Your TroublesMimi and Richard Farina, Pack Up Your Sorrows (Vanguard 1999) - Time waits for no man, and nowhere is this truer than in pop culture. Mimi and Richard Farina found themselves at the forefront of the coffeehouse/folk scene after an electrifying performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Yet just a year later, Richard Farina would die in a motorcycle accident in California, leaving behind a two-record legacy (supplemented by a posthumous disc in 1968).

Pack Up Your Sorrows draws tracks from the three albums recorded by Mimi and Richard Farina: Celebrations From a Grey Day (1965), Reflections in A Crystal Wind (1965), and the 1968 release, Memories.

At the Newport Folk FestivalA songwriter with a strong sense of contemporary politics, Richard Farina was well matched with his wife Mimi (younger sister of Joan Baez). The new album features songs such as "Michael, Andrew and James" (about three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi), "Bold Marauder," and "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream."

This is stripped-down folk, with recordings that emphasize Farina's songwriting talents. (Farina also wrote a book, "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me," which stands as a cult favorite, coming from the beat generation.)

Richard and MimiAlso included is a previously-unreleased version of "Tuileries," as well as songs like "Hard-Loving Loser" and "Reno, Nevada."

Pack Up Your Sorrows recalls a time long since past, when Dylan was just turning electric, and folk rock was about to mutate into such crossover acts as the Byrds. Take a step back in time with Richard and Mimi Farina.

- Randy Krbechek © 2000

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