Vonda Shepard

Chinatown

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Teamed professionally and personally with producer/keyboard whiz Mitchell Froom, Shepard makes a strong post-Ally McBeal statement on Chinatown. The arrangements vary, from one solo track through mixtures of strings and a rhythm section and on to a flirtation with electronic exotica on "Gyroscope," yet the feel doesn't change too much: Her relatively narrow vocal range and fondness for using cloudy weather as a lyrical device shroud the album in a fine mist. (Titles like "Rainy Days," "Rain or Shine," and "Promising Grey Day" make the point, which reflects further in the muted piano timbre, whale-noise effects, and wistful ocean images of "In July.") But if Chinatown is a monochrome, it's an appealing one, tailored to her honeyed, moody singing and knack for blending confessional candor with craftsmanship. One song, "The Sunset Marquis," offers a near-perfect example of contemporary narrative writing, with words that wind through lonely shadows toward a surprise redemption, and a construction whose brief lyrical hook -- "playing on the radio" -- sticks in your head without in the least impeding the flow of long, liquid melody. This is adult music at its finest: intelligent without the stain of showiness, intimate yet only the tiniest bit whiny, and ultimately, completely musical.

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