Monthly Archives: September 2013

Senses Working Overtime: Mandy Moore’s “Coverage” Turns 10

Coverage era Mandy Moore

Coverage era Mandy Moore

Moore’s junior album Coverage, excusing a repackaged edition of her debut in 2000, demurely appeared in the fall of 2003. It preceded her colleague Britney Spears’ In the Zone (2003) by a whole month. While Moore’s album went unnoticed, in a broader commercial sense, Spears enjoyed another smash. Ironic then a decade later, while Spears is still setting the charts alight, her output is for lack of a better word, uninspired. Moore’s Coverage on the other hand was a signal to one of the surprising resets in pop music.

The History

Moore’s rise in the wake of Spears and Christina Aguilera, at first, was nothing but the product of the American boom of pre-fab pop in 1999. Unlike the bluster of Aguilera, the dullness of Spears and the facelessness of Jessica Simpson, Moore’s voice was the right mix of ability and charisma; with it, Moore powered modest hits (“Candy,” “I Wanna Be With You”).

It wasn’t until her (official) second, eponymous album in 2001 that Moore’s ambition made more than a curious ripple. The worldly flash of “In My Pocket” remains one of the better moments of an epoch when pop began its march toward (artistic) extinction Stateside. The lovely “Cry” featured in the film ‘A Walk to Remember’, an adaption of the Nicholas Sparks book; the movie was Moore’s big co-lead role that led her to a lucrative cinematic career that stands tall today. Both of the stated songs had marked improvements over the fluffier works of So Real (1999), Moore’s debut. Moore’s recent interest in musicality led her back to the songbooks her parents shared with her as a child; namely the tunes of the 1970’s and early 1980’s.

The Record

Moore, circa 2003

Moore, circa 2003

Moore’s switch had to be done correctly; she was not the first pop starlet who used a “credible” catalyst to mark a career transformation. Her attention to this detail led her to producer John Fields; working within both the conventional and unconventional brackets of popular music, he had a vision of how to keep Moore’s change authentic, but commercial enough. Moore’s overall sound arc for Coverage embraced a general, but engaging mixture of adult contemporary, folk, and pop / rock of the previously mentioned decades.

With Fields’ help she enlisted a crack band of musicians who gave the record a full, colorful feeling. Notably, two men present for the Coverage sessions, Tommy Barbarella (keyboards) and Michael Bland (drums), had worked with Prince for the bulk of the 1990’s in his second long running studio / touring band The New Power Generation. Everything was aligned for execution, all that was needed now were the songs.

Regardless of when, who, or why, a successful covers record will score or misfire based on the strength (or weakness) of its song selection. Moore wisely balanced accessibility and intrigue in her awareness of the discographies she was paying tribute to: “Senses Working Overtime” (XTC), “The Whole of the Moon” (The Waterboys), “Can We Still Be Friends?” (Todd Rundgren), “I Feel the Earth Move” (Carole King), “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” (Elton John), “Drop the Pilot” (Joan Armatrading), “Moonshadow” (Cat Stevens), “One Way or Another” (Blondie), “Breaking Us In Two” (Joe Jackson), “Anticipation” (Carly Simon), “Help Me” (Joni Mitchell), “Have a Little Faith In Me” (John Hiatt).

A segued trio began Coverage: “Senses Working Overtime,” “The Whole of the Moon” and “Can We Still Be Friends?”. Moore trademarked her sonic restart with vocal harmonic layering (apparent on all three tracks); this technique would worm its way into Coverage’s following projects. Otherwise, Moore imbued the works with romantic recklessness and a sadness beyond her years. The productions themselves were bright and florid; they kept stride with Moore’s singing.

There were some safe numbers, namely “I Feel the Earth Move” and “One Way or Another,” but Moore’s respect for the originals could be blamed for that. Moore did elevate the stakes on her take of “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters”; her phrasing clean, but not lacking emotional punch, carried the prose of the song. In many ways, Coverage’s true star was Moore’s vocal; at times, she orbited the initial versions due to the sheer boundlessness of her range. Visits with “Drop the Pilot,” “Anticipation” and a strikingly resonant slant on “Have a Little Faith In Me” confirmed her victory.

Coverage’s tight presentation was poised to give Moore the winning feat of reintroducing her earthier, but politely polished persona.

The Impact

On 7/15/03, a drab single remix of “Have a Little Faith In Me” dropped; the single edit sucked the spirit (and purpose) from what Moore was trying to achieve with Coverage. Neither an older crowd or her younger followers were biting this confused lead single; it did land on the U.S. Billboard Top 40 Mainstream Chart (#39).

Alternate Cover to Deluxe Edition of Coverage

Alternate Cover to the Deluxe Edition of Coverage

Directly after Coverage released on 10/21/03, the first international single was pulled (“Drop the Pilot,” 10/28/03). Its natural uptempo vibe might have been better received by her pop base of old; but the single wasn’t for American audiences. Instead it was ushered to Brazil and the Philippines without making an echo in either locales.

The album didn’t meet more than mild positions at home (U.S. Billboard 200 #14) and abroad in Australia (ARIA #97). Critically, Moore hadn’t gotten out of the line of fire completely from her past indiscretions as far as some pundits were concerned.

Rolling Stone critic Jon Caramanica both criticized and praised Moore’s “middling” talent as he called it:

Effortlessly genial and impossibly well-scrubbed, Mandy Moore is almost shimmery enough to overshadow her middling vocal talent on Coverage. Taking on familiar songs, though, always unearths the rough edges beneath the polish, especially when they sound flat wrong emanating from the mouth of America’s peppiest 19-year-old. Listen to Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow” or the Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon,” on which Moore wails, “While you filled the skies/I was dumbfounded by truth” about as convincingly as a flight attendant. Other tracks that were rendered indelible by previous vocalists — Carly Simon’s “Anticipation,” Joe Jackson’s “Breaking Us in Two” — sound little better than American Idol outtakes here. The irony is that in denaturing these songs, Moore truly makes them her own.

However, there were some commentators that saw to the core of Moore’s Coverage. All Music Guide veteran Stephen Thomas Erlewine opined: 

Moore decided to broaden her horizons and position herself for a long-term career with her third album, Coverage. With this record, she leaves dance-pop behind and heads toward mature pop — and in a far more effective fashion than Jessica Simpson’s Andy Williams revamp In This Skin — by positioning herself, with the assistance of producer/engineer John Fields, as a pop/rock singer by covering classic singer/songwriters such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, and Elton John, as well as cult pop icons like XTC’s Andy Partridge, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, Joe Jackson, and Todd Rundgren.

Though the selections Moore and Fields have made are predictable — each songwriter is showcased by one of his or her best-known songs, with the arguable exception of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” for Elton and Bernie Taupin — that does make sense, since it piques curiosity: listeners will want to know how does Mandy Moore sing “Can We Still Be Friends,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” and “Senses Working Overtime.” The answer: pretty good, actually.

“Drop the Pilot”

Directed By: Nick DiBella

Excusing a platinum and two gold certifications for her previous recordings, Moore wasn’t the chartbuster Spears and Aguilera were. The continual sales slip of Coverage (moving just 294,000 copies as of 2009*) could at least be seen as admirable due to its creative factor. The official second single, “Senses Working Overtime,” was issued on 1/17/04 with no promotion.

Epic Records and Moore quickly, if amicably, parted ways; Epic unceremoniously issued the The Best of Mandy Moore later in 2004 to Moore’s annoyance. Hindsight shows that Epic could have tried putting a push behind Moore’s LP; another wave of singer-songwriters of the Venusian persuasion had appeared at the dawn of the 2000’s (Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton). Moore’s Coverage would have been right at home.

Moore’s repetoire as an actress built up steadily from 2004 to as recent as 2012; some of her box office hits included  ‘Saved!’ (2004), ‘License to Wed’ (2007) and Walt Disney’s ‘Tangled’ (2010). Music, never far from Moore’s heart, remained a part of her focus. The seeds that were sown on Coverage blossomed on Wild Hope (2007) and Amanda Leigh (2009); the latter record was birthed in the afterglow of her marriage to country singer Ryan Adams in 2009. Both albums had Moore writing her own material, this led to the complete acceptance of Moore within the singer-songwriter format she started reaching for on Coverage.

Amanda Leigh in particular had Moore’s full powers staged properly; it was here that she trumped her former peers who’d spent the mass of the 2000’s clumsily trying to prove their “serious” mettle. Coverage didn’t herald Moore as a sales darling; it did show one of the quieter, but no less magnificent transformations in modern pop when one sticks to their truth. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: *-Follow the hyperlink to Billboard for the certifications of Moore’s recordings as of 2009. There are two editions of Coverage, the standard and the deluxe (w/ a bonus DVD about Coverage’s creation). Coverage is in print and readily available physically and digitally. For current news on Mandy Moore, visit her Twitter page as her official website is under construction. Banner created by Andrew Bird.-QH]

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New Records from Gloria Estefan, Janelle Monáe and John Legend

The Standards, The Electric Lady, Love in the Future

The Standards, The Electric Lady, Love in the Future

 

 

Gloria Estefan

Gloria Estefan

Gloria Estefan: The Standards (Crescent Moon / Sony)

Synopsis: You can’t build singers like this; charisma, character, heart and integrity cannot be voted for on reality television talent forums. In the era of ‘The Voice,’ ‘American Idol’ and ‘X-Factor’, Estefan is one of the last of the pop vanguard of old that is an artist based not just on her skill as a songstress, but as an actual artisan. If she weren’t, her 22nd LP (excusing 1992’s Christmas Through Your Eyes) would be just another shrewd business move toward her established fan base; instead, it is another nuanced addition to a plentiful discography.

The Standards is Estefan’s first album of covers in 19 years, following behind her pop songbook tribute Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1994). Hold Me manifested directly after a much saucier gamble for Estefan, Mi Tierra (1993); that gambit paid off high in critical and commercial dividends. So, The Standards follows a similar trail impacting after the dancefloor hedonism of Miss Little Havana (2011).

The Standards draws from the “traditional” American songbook: Ira Gershwin, George David Weiss and Stanley Adams etcetera; they’re songs that are immortal and have received takes from every artist imaginable since their inception. Here, Estefan places her sandalwood tones over accomplished and professional backdrops (jazz, orchestral pop) courtesy of Gregg Field (drums), Al Schmitt (engineer), Chuck Berghofer (bass), Dean Parks (guitar) and Dave Koz (saxophone) to spotlight some of the talent gathered.

Estefan scores with a fairytale take of “What a Difference a Day Makes,” a rending Spanish version of “Smile” (here “Sonríe”) that partners her with Laura Pausini and the coffee and tears mood of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Estefan’s Spanish singing continues to remain a solid highlight, but is usually matched with equally energetic English vocalizing as well.

The record is savvy in that it includes just the right amount of familiar tunes and a few lesser known jewels to keep variety, a key element to a successful covers recording. The Standards combines nostalgia and romance together wonderfully; it sets a template for aging not only gracefully, but elegantly and on one’s own terms. Ranking: Above Average

Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady (Bad Boy / Wondaland)

Synopsis: From the obvious (Sly & the Family Stone) to the obscure (P.M. Dawn), there have been rhythm and blues boundary pushers as long as there has been R&B music; it’s an elite cache of artists whose contradictory efforts attempt to keep their roots in soul soil, yet pull as far away from that earth as possible.  Enter Janelle Monáe. The new mistress of this movement has gone from strength to strength since her appearance several years ago; The Electric Lady, Monáe’s second long player is proof of her rise.

Continuing the wide-screen dramatics of her “Metropolis” concept, starring the revolutionary android Cindi Mayweather, The Electric Lady boasts big, but as with any conceptual piece it’s just an allegory. Monáe uses her sci-fi epic to address current (and continual) societal ills and pleasures.

The lead single serviced from The Electric Lady, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” is steam pressed funk frippery that is all at once fun and deadly serious by the time Monáe reaches the rap conclusion. Basically, the revolution will be televised and won by using art in any way she and her clique see fit.

The remainder of The Electric Lady follows a similarly focused and fierce compass, in many ways surpassing the wild and free patterns of The ArchAndroid (2010). Here, R&B through the decades is reworked, often two or more styles colliding in one song. One such example is the title track, featuring fellow avant-garde sister-in-arms Solange on the hook. It combines a bottom-heavy-bass-beat that recalls the fusion of jazzy-hip-hop of the 1990’s, but with the keyboards of Minneapolis driven dance-R&B of the mid-1980’s.

Elsewhere, Monáe gives you straight-ahead urban confectionaries where her voice is allowed to stretch on “It’s Code,” “Victory” and
“What An Experience”. Her guest roster is also impressive on this set, including the already stated Solange, Miguel, Prince, Erykah Badu and Esperanza Spalding who complement versus crowd Monáe; it is she who is the star of this record after all.

While not the first rebel, Janelle Monáe has scrawled her name on the history books of black music as one of its most daring and innovative voices. With The Electric Lady Monáe doesn’t merely match her hype, she exceeds it. Ranking: Classic

John Legend

John Legend

John Legend: Love in the Future (Columbia / GOOD)

Synopsis: Titles can be misleading. In this instance, Legend’s fourth record isn’t as voraciously vintage as Once Again (2006), nor is it as future bound as Evolver (2008). Love in the Future falls directly between the two extremes of Legend’s last two albums, which makes for a more involved, but still rewarding listening experience for the audience.

The pace and pulse of Love in the Future will bring to mind an ambitious double album, however it does not overextend itself in any quarter.  The large cast on deck producing the new Legend LP helps lend a sense of cohesion that typically evades a project handled by too many hands.

Patrons end up with hip-hop sampled goodness, mod-60’s jazz-lounge-lizard affectations and modern soul flourishes in one recording; but how do all these influences remain tied to one another? Further, many of these discussed elements surface later in the tracks and in subtler ways than on past Legend works.

It is due in part to how the songs glide and groove with Legend functioning as their axis. The hip-hop soul stepper of “Who Do We Think We Are” rides along a sampled snatch of Jean Knight’s 1971 evergreen “Mr. Big Stuff” in a melancholy, but masculine fashion; but it’s Legend that seems to coax the stated influences to the surface of the song. Visit with the spare rumbling of “Made to Love” where he echoes and calls to his lover, his vocal nudity is all at once vulnerable and emboldened.

In all, Love in the Future is a collection of songs that reveals its secrets with each play; it celebrates adult R&B without making a stink about how adult it is or closing its doors to contemporary production done with good taste. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: All three albums are available in deluxe versions that can be purchased through online retailers. Estefan and Monáe’s physical deluxe editions can only be purchased at Target; Legend’s physical deluxe edition can be purchased in any music retailer. For current information visit their subsequent official websites: Gloria Estefan Official / Janelle Monáe Official / John Legend Official. Artwork courtesy of Andrew Bird.-QH]

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Making Music: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Shoot From the Hip” Turns 10

Bextor, circa 2003

Shot from the Shoot From the Hip photo session

When Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s second album revealed itself in the fall of 2003 it was an assured bet to be a hit. Coming off the successful Read My Lips (2002) project, Bextor had competed among some of the finest in British dance-pop and held her own.

Ironic then, that Shoot From the Hip (2003) made a conscious effort to shift itself out of the dance-pop matrix and present an eclectic rostrum for U.K.-inflected pop.

The History

Beginning with the Brit-pop crew theaudience, their eponymous debut was released in 1998 and got the U.K music scene piqued; sales were slow and the promising group amicably disbanded in 1999. For her next maneuver that was more Kylie Minogue than Shirley Manson, Bextor laid her glassy vocals over DJ Spiller’s “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)” in 2000. The song became a massive hit and contemporary classic. In 2002 Bextor dropped her solo debut Read My Lips; led by the strutting “Murder On the Dancefloor,” the album and its subsequent singles (including a great recasting of Cher’s 1979 Casablanca Records-era hit “Take Me Home“) found favor with fans, critics and the charts.

It seemed that as long as Bextor played the part of the moody, dancefloor doll she’d have no worries. But didn’t the former frontwoman of theaudience want more space to create in the true, versatile pop style?

The Record

Bextor, circa 2003

Bextor, circa 2003

Read My Lips was top-heavy despite its high points; the songs felt labored in that general, millennial Euro-pop-dance frame. The second time around, Bextor’s rich British timbre and acute lyrical skillset allowed her to shape Shoot From the Hip in an intimate, albeit commercially aware manner. Bextor did not relinquish her autonomy of writing / producing when she courted collaborators: Gregg Alexander, Matt Rowe, Damian LeGassick and Jeremy Wheatley. All four men had, were and would write hits on both sides of the Atlantic in a miscellany of genres in the 1990’s and 2000’s. With this quartet on board with Bextor, she decided to pry apart the age-old concept that dance and pop couldn’t be done as individual entities.

This is not to say Bextor didn’t have a few mirrorball spinners on Shoot From the Hip, but often the musical backdrop of her record pulled from various places and were tied to other unconventional sounds. Take the Kraftwerk inspired click-clack that worked over a freestyle-like beat line on “Making Music,” or the rock ‘n’ disco integration that frolicked unabashedly on “Love It Is Love”; Bextor was showing her chameleon strengths.

There were some (forgive the pun) pop straight shooters in the pack: the bubbly “I Won’t Change You” and the acoustic four on the floor “Party In My Head” were lip smacking aural treats. Other explorations were savvy and unexpected; her torch ballad touchdowns on “I Am Not Good At Not Getting What I Want” and “Hello Hello” had her capable of delivering softer material convincingly.

Bextor vocally excelled on each track and lyrically her thoughts could be swift and sentimental; examples of this included the 1980’s electro-quakers “Mixed Up World” and “Another Day”. The songs had Bextor as the day-to-day heroine and Girl Power girlfriend respectively. Though the wordsmith masterpiece of the Shoot From the Hip epoch went to the b-side of “Mixed Up World,” the sparingly dressed “The Earth Shook the Devil’s Hand”; capturing the emotional trauma of a bad romance, Bextor gave a plush tribute, unknowingly, to her theaudience roots.

Those that needed an excuse to wiggle their bums, Bextor hadn’t forgotten them. She cooly dished the sleek chic of “I Won’t Dance With You” and “Physical”; originally made famous by Australian songbird Olivia Newton-John in 1981, Bextor’s very British and cerebral reading of “Physical” was tucked away as a hidden track several minutes after the conclusion of “Hello Hello”. Further, Bextor’s cover of the Spanish recording duo Baccara’s 1979 smash “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie” (the flipside to “I Won’t Change You”) served up knowing-kitsch done to a high standard.

The album was perfectly titled as it was succinct, quick and full of pop that landed each hit it launched at the listener. It clearly was designed to take Bextor to the next level as a singer and songwriter.

The Impact

Single Cover for "Mixed Up World"

Single cover for “Mixed Up World”

Launching the LP, Bextor moved forward with “Mixed Up World” on 10/13/03 as the lead single; it preceded the release of Shoot From the Hip which dropped shortly thereafter on 10/27/03.

Not immediately danceable as “Murder On the Dancefloor,” the single placed at a fair spot on the U.K. Singles Chart (#7). Globally, it was received well (Denmark #3, Norway #9) or poorly (Ireland #26, ARIA #32, Switzerland #49, Germany #69). The record itself charted in few international territories after it arrived to store shelves not long after “Mixed Up World”: U.K. #19, Mexico #11, Switzerland #35,  Germany #84. “I Won’t Change You” was issued quickly on 12/22/03 and managed to perform well at home (U.K. #9) but dismally in the world markets (Ireland #40, Germany #80).

Bextor’s impending pregnancy put a complete halt to any further promotional duties; recently this year, Shoot From the Hip just certified silver in England. The album was Bextor’s second to last recording with Polydor Records; three years bridged Shoot From the Hip from its follow-up Trip the Light Fantastic (2007).

It seemed that the world was not ready for a more reflective, expansive Sophie Ellis-Bextor. All Music Guide critic K. Ross Huffman seemed to summarize the (erroneously) dismissive attitude people had taken toward Bextor in 2003:

Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s second album lacks anything nearly as distinctive as her early singles “Murder on the Dancefloor” and “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love),” but it’s still a solid, perfectly respectable collection of contemporary dance-pop. Of course, “respectable” doesn’t necessarily count for much in pop terms, although Ellis-Bextor has mastered a knack for exuding sophistication without being off-putting and stuffy — she’s so posh (her unmistakable accent) that the slickness of the production complements her personality rather than diluting it.

“Mixed Up World”

Directed By: Rupert Jones

Bextor’s makeover that benefitted from a sense of amity versus just interpretative distance had backfired, sales wise. Many wanted the glossy, radio-ready material that had made Read My Lips safe. Bextor continued on with the mentioned Trip the Light Fantastic and later with a few label struggles that led her to found her own indie imprint (EBGB’s), she delivered her dance fever on her fourth affair, Make a Scene (2011).

In spite of losing her chart clout, Bextor has become one of Britain’s most revered pop figures of the last 10 years; Bextor’s fifth LP, Wanderlust, releases on 1/20/14. Shoot From the Hip was Bextor’s brave moment when she created something to challenge without thought to commercial consequences. The result was one of the unsung pop classics of the last decade. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: There are two editions of Shoot From the Hip; one includes “Making Music,” “I Won’t Dance With You” and “Physical”. The other edition omits the three former tracks. Both versions are in print physically and digitally as an import. For current information on Sophie Ellis-Bextor, visit her official site.-QH]

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