Monday, June 08, 2009

Present Perfect Tense

I’ve always had a little faith in Mandy Moore. Sure, her youthful foray into teen pop produced a fair amount of dreck, but by the time her self-titled album was released, you could just sense she had more to give. Her official second album, Mandy Moore, served as her last gasp in the hyper-controlled and overproduced teen pop universe, for which she always seemed a bit too self-assured for anyway. It truly had some highlights for the genre (Crush, Cry, When I Talk to You), but it simply had too many high-fructose throwaways for my taste.

Enter Coverage, which thankfully started to reveal the real Mandy Moore. Coverage was essentially a kind of mix-tape that a good vocalist with a smart producer (John Fields) can use to reinvent herself, which she accomplished artfully. Moore joyfully surprised me with some excellent covers of XTC, Elton John, Cat Stevens, and The Waterboys. Coverage was the dazzling emergence of Amanda Leigh.

After Coverage, my expectations for Wild Hope were high, too high. It’s likable enough with some good moments, but in the end it was simply too birkenstocky and boring to sustain my interest for long – a near miss.

Mandy Moore - Amanda LeighI tempered my expectations for any follow-up until I heard she was working with Mike Viola. First Fields, now Viola? Nice – this woman has great taste. Mike Viola is one of the best pop artists working today and I was immensely curious with how this collaboration would end up. Amanda Leigh is quite an accomplishment. Viola is all over this one, but so is what I sense to be the real Mandy Moore – the Amanda Leigh who first peeked her pretty little head out for Coverage.

This second self-titled effort is the perfect companion to her first. Mandy Moore (the album) documents a girl discovering she was a woman with real talent beyond a pretty voice. Amanda Leigh (the album) documents that woman’s full self-actualization. That may sound like an overstatement, but after spending a couple weeks with the album, it is undoubtedly her best work to date and is, so far, one of the best pop releases of the year.

Like Wild Hope, Amanda Leigh bleeds a 70s singer-songwriter vibe. Most of the songs would fit in seamlessly with her inspirations were they to meet on AM radio someday, yet they come across as decidedly fresh and contemporary. Perhaps that is Viola’s touch, but it’s a skill she’s shown since Coverage. I recommend the whole album, but if you have only 15 minutes you’ll be best served by listening to track 3, the peppy-pop-done-right single I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week, through track 6, the only Viola-less tune on the whole album – the irresistibly moody Everblue. By doing so, you’ll also be treated to Pocket Philospher, the Too Poppiest tune here. It’s so good, it sounds like an outtake from one of Roger Joseph Manning Jr.’s solo albums.

Amanda Leigh is a revelation. Perhaps finally I’ll be able to say I’m a Mandy Moore fan without the usual snicker that accompanies such an admission.

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