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Vonda Shepard Pays Her Dues (7/10/98)

Vonda Shepard, Songs from Ally McBeal (550 Music 1998) - Sometimes all you need is a bit of luck. Singer/songwriter Vonda Shepard worked the club and concert circuit for more than a decade before connecting with producer/writer David E. Kelley, the creator of Ally McBeal. Since joining the cast of the hit show as the blonde piano player, Shepard's star has risen.

For Songs from Ally McBeal, Vonda contributes several original songs, including "Searchin' My Soul" and "Will You Marry Me?", as well as covers of such favorites as "Walk Away Renee" and "You Belong to Me."

The new album features 14 tracks, two of which were drawn from Shepard's 1996 independent release, It's Good, Eve. Shepard has toured as a backing singer with such noted artists as Rickie Lee Jones, and Jackson Browne (we saw Shepard a couple of years back with Jackson Browne: she handled the falsetto chorus to "Stay").

Ally McBeal is about a young attorney in an East Coast law firm. With its unisex restrooms and unusual plot interludes, including the dancing baby sequence, the T.V. shows veers between drama and farce. As an attorney, it's one of the few shows about lawyers that I enjoy (because I don't take it seriously).

(As an aside, Ally McBeal producer Kelly seems to favor blondes, as he is married to actress Michelle Pfeiffer, another friend and fan of Shepard's).

The soundtrack also includes "Hooked on a Feeling" (from the dancing baby episode) and a lovely cover of "I Only Want to Be With You" (the highlight of the album).

I'm not enamored of Vonda's bigger studio productions, including "It's in His Kiss (the Shoop Song") and "Tell Him." I prefer Shepard's more paired-down songs, including the lovely "Maryland" (from It's Good, Eve). Vonda has a sweet voice, which should not be masked by a studio band.

Small complaints aside, I'm delighted for Vonda's success. Vonda has paid her dues, and Songs From Ally McBeal is a pleasant showcase for her talents.

Harry Chapin, Live at the Bottom Line: January 1981 (Bottom Line Records 1998) - The newly-established Bottom Line Record Company draws from the deep well of performances recorded at the historic venue in New York City. Harry Chapin Livecelebrates the legendary folk performer's 2,000th live performance, and includes such hits as "Taxi" and the number one single, "Cat's in the Cradle."

The double-disk set was recorded during three nights in January 1981, just six months before Chapin's untimely death. Joining Harry for the show were his brother, Steve Chapin, on keyboards, Big John Wallace on bass, Dougie Walker on lead guitar, Howie Fields on drums, and Yvonne Cable on cello and strings. The set is smartly packaged, and not overwhelming: disk one is 50 minutes long, while disk two clocks in at 46 minutes.

Blessed with both a sense of humor and a social conscience, Harry Chapin made his mark on pop music of the late 70's. In addition to the hits, the set features the contemplative "Remember When the Music," with reference to the death of John Lennon (who had been killed just one month before this recording). Also included is the tribute, "Old Folkie," as well as the comical "30,000 Pounds of Bananas."

An engaging and bright performer, Harry Chapin's string was cut short too early. Fans will enjoy Live at the Bottom Line.

The Donnas, American Teenage Rock 'n Roll Machine (Lookout Records 1998) - The Donnas are a four-piece girl punk group from the Bay Area. With a sly nod toward the Spice Girls (the ladies refer to themselves Donna C., Donna F., Donna A. and Donna R.), the quartet lays down two-minute Ramones-style punk.

And there's something refreshing about that. The band consists of Donna A. on lead vocals, Donna R. on guitars and backing vocals, Donna C. on drums and backing vocals, and Donna F. on bass and backing vocals. While the set is short (the ten tracks check in at just under 25 minutes), the energy is present. Thus, songs like "Leather on Leather" and "Outta My Mind" show the foursome at their power-rock best.

Girl punk has never gone out of style (though it has been several years since we heard from the Raincoats). If you are looking for a slice of power pop, try American Teenage Rock 'n Roll Machine.

- Randy Krbechek © 1998

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