Elevate Difference

The Best of Ally McBeal

"I’ve been searchin’ my soul tonight... I know there’s so much more to life..." If you’re starting to hum the theme tune to a certain late-nineties television show about the life of a diminutive lawyer, you’ll understand that this album’s opening track is as much a time capsule as it is a pop song. Everything there was to love (and love to hate) about Ally McBeal is summed up as singer and pianist Vonda Shepard works her way through "Searchin’ My Soul."

Fans will doubtless remember Shepard’s regular appearances at Ally’s local piano bar. As the characters gathered for a post-work tipple, Shepard would use her uncanny ability to sum up their emotional landscape through song.

Some might also remember that, while sometimes hailed as a great leap forward for women on television, Ally McBeal wasn’t completely trouble-free from a feminist perspective (after all, Ally was the character that prompted Time magazine to ask whether feminism might in fact be dead back in 1998).

For those in need of a quick reminder: Ally’s professional concerns were consistently overshadowed by near-crippling neuroticism, flashes of baby mania and a desire for romantic love that often eclipsed the details of whatever case she happened to be working on that episode. Her struggles arguably reflected those of many women looking for success and fulfillment in a male-dominated environment, but the show’s unwillingness to challenge stereotypical representations of women in the workplace was also clear from the start.

The Best of Ally McBeal probably won’t be hailed as a great leap forward for women in music, but it’s safe to say that isn’t its intention. Like Ally, it aims to please and entertain without challenging its audience, and it succeeds. Many listeners will enjoy the balance of light and shade in its track listing, the way each composition builds to a satisfying chorus, and the catchiness of the songs that will have them singing along before they really know the words.

There will doubtless be others listeners, looking for murkier lyrical depths and tougher thematic challenges, who will be lost by the end of track two. Lines like “snow is cold, rain is wet” and repeated instances of rhyming the word “baby” with “maybe” will soon sort the former from the latter.

There’s certainly no faulting Shepard musically. Her vocals are rich and the piano backs her up reliably. At the same time, there’s a slight sense of detachment that comes across on a few tracks. Covers "You Belong to Me" and "Hooked on a Feeling" somehow fall short on impact, and in light of Shepard’s musical prowess it’s tempting to point to the blinding shine of the production as a possible explanation.

All that said, what’s most satisfying about this retrospective collection is how timeless these songs actually are (bar "Searchin’ My Soul," which never really stood a chance after the first episode of Ally went to air). Stand-outs are the subdued yet soulful "The Wildest Times of the World," "Maryland," and "Baby, Don’t You Break My Heart Slow" along with rousing versions of "It’s in His Kiss" and "Tell Him"—toe tapping non-negotiable.

So if you think there’s a “best of” to be found in Ally’s world, this album delivers. All that’s missing is the scene where the snowflakes fall on the woman walking dreamily through the city streets after a hard day’s litigation.

Written by: Alice Allan, March 6th 2010