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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4 Comments

Filed under Pop

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

  1. Very well written! I’ve been a fan of Mandy Moore since her beginnings with “So real” back in 99. Mandy is truly magnificent! So talented, regardless in what genre of pop she is doing. Coverage was a great album and Mandy certainly made them “her own” songs! One of my favorite tracks is Drop the pilot so it’s pretty cool that it was chosen as the first single. Too bad it didn’t get any positive notice in the states. (or elsewhere).

  2. Pingback: The QH Blend’s Class of 2003 | theqhblend

  3. As cover records go, ‘Coverage’ managed to avoid the usual pitfalls and instead was a consistent and respectful homage to the great singer-songwriters of the 70s/80s. A nice lead in to her best record, ‘Wild Hope’.

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