CD Review of Amanda Leigh by Mandy Moore
Mandy Moore: Amanda Leigh
Recommended if you like
Carole King, Joni Mitchell,
Rachael Yamagata
Label
Storefront/RED
Mandy Moore: Amanda Leigh

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
he cover is an old-school glamour shot, all eyeliner and airbrushing, but the real spirit of Mandy Moore’s sixth album lays in the title: Amanda Leigh is both the first two thirds of Moore’s given name and a perfectly back-to-basics introduction to the personal, stripped-down set of songs collected within. It’s also probably a bit of a defense mechanism – a way of shouting "this is me" to the folks who still remember Moore’s days as a freshly scrubbed also-ran in the teenie-pop sweepstakes of the late ‘90s – but she abandoned that sound a long time ago; she’s been spreading her artistic wings since 2003’s smartly chosen covers disc, Coverage, and at this point, it seems safe to say she’s done enough apologizing for her past.

Whether she’s done enough woodshedding, however, is another question entirely. With her last album, 2007’s Wild Hope, Moore did her best Carole King impression, sifting through the wreckage of her breakup with Zach Braff for a 21st-century update of Tapestry, but she wasn’t up to the task; whether because she was still finding her songwriting legs or simply because Braff enervates everything he touches, Hope aimed for profundity but wound up settling for a watered-down (and mostly pretty dull) approximation of the classic Laurel Canyon sound.

Mandy Moore

Since declaring an end to her run at the teen pop crown, Moore has made a point of paying tribute to her favorite artists, either by covering them (King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell were a few of the honorees for Coverage) or enlisting them to work on her records – and if nothing else, she’s got good taste on that front, having shared a studio with John Fields, the Weepies, Rachael Yamagata, Jon Alagia, and Sara Watkins, to name just a few. Not all of those musical marriages have borne fruit, but they all at least hinted at an artistic depth that few would have initially given her credit for – and one which comes closer to the surface than ever with Amanda Leigh.

This growth spurt is presumably due largely to the influence of Moore’s producer and co-writer for the project, power pop demigod Mike Viola. Though Viola’s closest brush with fame as a recording artist has come courtesy of his lead vocals on a song credited to a fictitious band ("That Thing You Do"), he’s well known in power pop circles, and seems to be cultivating a Butch Walker-type career for himself as a producer and songwriting ringer. Amanda Leigh certainly won’t sell as many units as Walker clients like Avril Lavigne or Pink, but it makes a compelling argument for both of its creative principals – Moore as a lyricist and singer, and Walker as a guy who knows how to bring out the best in the artists he works with.

Musically, Amanda Leigh comes across as a slightly peppier cousin to Wild Hope – and although it’s almost as ballad-heavy as Hope, this time around the arrangements and production are smart and varied enough to keep things interesting. Again, Moore is largely aiming for vibe; as with the last album, she surrounds one killer pop cut (in this case, "I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week") with lazy afternoon ballads that are supposed to slowly get under your skin. The difference here is that they actually do. Whether this is more the result of Viola’s influence or Moore’s maturation is something only they know, but either way, Amanda Leigh does a surprisingly commendable job of casting Moore as a sort of miniature Joni Mitchell; songs like the pensive "Indian Summer," string-laden "Nothing Everything," and gently swaying "Merrimack River" do a tremendous job of synthesizing her influences – and if they’d been recorded by an artist people were more willing to take seriously, tracks such as "Pocket Philosopher" and "Song About Home" would launch great waves of bloggy buzz.

None of this is to suggest that Amanda Leigh is an album without problems. It wants to be a homey, down-to-earth record, but Moore’s too rigid a singer; she hits all the notes and has a warm enough voice, but her diction and phrasing are so well-groomed that everything she touches sounds hopelessly square. And the songs, though ingratiating – and definitely a step above her earlier material – do have a tendency to blend into each other (not to mention the background). Still, it’s a solid stab at the singer/songwriter life from the girl who once warbled "I’m missin’ you like candy." To ask for much more seems unnecessarily greedy.

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