Tag Archives: adult contemporary

Merrimack River – Mandy Moore

I wanted to make a really quintessential southern California pop record from the 70s. We made it in our buddy’s basement in Boston on all vintage equipment.

Mandy Moore on her 2009 album, Amanda Leigh

Negotiating the jump from child star to adult artist is difficult. Many have been unable to pull it off. The better known you have been, the harder it is. It’s perhaps lucky for Mandy Moore that she wasn’t a Britney-sized success in the early noughties. In fact, Moore’s debut album, So Real, was received by older commentators, and tacitly by its intended audience, as a rather pathetic attempt by Epic Records to get product out into a marketplace redefined by Britney and Christina. The album peaked at a mere number 31 in the US. In the pop landscape of 1999, where promotional blitzes ensured that albums peaked high in the first week and then dropped away quickly, that was pretty close to being embarrassing. Moore was a second-division teen-pop star at best.

Flash forward 10 years to 2009. Moore released Amanda Leigh, her fifth album and second since her reinvention as a singer-songwriter inspired by the usual giants of the early 1970s: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Todd Rundgren, and so on. By now she was engaged to Ryan Adams and there was an audible country tinge to her work, too, albeit filtered through a chamber-pop aesthetic that sometimes recalled nothing so much as R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (she had duetted with Michael Stipe on a cover of God Only Knows for a film soundtrack a couple of years previously, so perhaps the resemblance was intended). Moore declared – perhaps only semi jokingly – that she’d be willing to give a refund to anyone who’d bought either of her first two records.

So is Moore’s story is a journey from ephemeral teen pop to ephemeral NPR rock? That’s a long way from the whole story. There’s a lot to like on Amanda Leigh. The production is a little too glossy – the compression a touch too obvious, the vocal and instrument sounds a touch too hyped and brittle in the upper ranges – to really make the album sound quite the way I imagine Moore wanted it to, but there’s two or three absolutely lovely ballads on this record. Everblue (co-written with Lori McKenna) is built on subdued, melancholy electric piano, a floor-tom drum part and warm bass guitar that carries the song with fat, sustained root notes. The guitar part on Song About Home explicitly quotes Joni Mitchell’s Woman of Heart and Mind, and the woodwind has a distinctly For the Roses vibe too. Moore and her co-writer and producer Mike Viola have done their homework; when Moore first dabbled with seventies singer-songwriterhood on her 2003 covers album, her song choices (Help Me, Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters, I Feel the Earth Move, Moonshadow) didn’t suggest deep knowledge of the style. But someone who’s dug deep enough into this thing to be quoting Tom Scott bass clarinet lines is someone I can do business with.

Still, Merrimack River is the obvious highlight. I first came across it on a live video linked to from the AV Club (the Onion‘s film, TV and music review site). It was just Viola and Moore: one guitar, two voices, lacking the elegantly pensive string arrangement that decorates the studio version. Nonetheless the song was obviously a stunner, with a lovely chorus and enough chewy chord changes in the verse to reward repeat listening. The recorded version is a strange mix – the continuous background hum of the amplified acoustic guitar is an oddly lo-fi touch; the vocals have been rather obviously primped and possibly tuned, and the deep breaths and catches in Moore’s voice are a sometimes-distracting hangover from her pop days – but there is so much audible delight being taken by Moore in the wideness of this song’s emotional territory that it’s quite disarming.

I’m less struck on the Rundgren-/Nilsson-esque single I Could Break Your Heart Any Day, where the double-tracked Moore vocal is annoyingly chipmunk-like, but still, there’s a decent hit rate here. Inevitably, though, the record didn’t get the audience it deserved. ‘Serious’ music fans were sceptical of an adult-alternative move by a former pop star turned (part-time) singer-songwriter (and it’s not as if AAA is a genre that gets automatic critical respect), and Moore didn’t really have that many old fans to pull along with her into her new venture. But it’s worth noting that Mr Mandy Moore – the aforementioned David Ryan Adams – hasn’t written a song this good in a decade.

mandy moore live

The author’s own 1970s-style singer-songwriter doings:

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Just Another Day – Jon Secada

In 1984 the Miami Sound Machine released their first major-label album, the multi-platinum success of which turned singer Gloria Estefan into the biggest Latin musician in the world and her husband Emilio into one of the most successful producers in any form of pop music. For the rest of the eighties, they maintained their upward trajectory and the Estefans fully transcended Latin-music stardom, becoming truly global pop stars in the process.

In 1990, a semi-truck crashed into the Estefans’ tour bus during a snowstorm and Gloria broke her back. After a successful operation to stabilise her spine with two steel rods, she needed a year of intensive rehab. Although she managed to take part in the recording of a new album towards the end of this process, the Miami Sound Machine juggernaut had slowed somewhat and her English-language career never quite recovered from the lost momentum. In any event, the 1990s were already shaping up to be a more naturalistic decade in terms of production and presentation; the blaring horns and big bam boom of Emilio’s music was becoming old hat, redolent as they were of the Reagan-era excesses of the most excessive decade in that most excessive of American cities.

With all this to consider, Emilio began to invest more of his time in his protégé Jon Secada, who had served time as an MSM backing singer and had already co-written some ballads with Gloria, at which he showed a talent. Secada’s eponymous first album duly got a full Estefan treatment, but in a modified and subdued form. Emilio’s signature synth-brass was largely absent, Secada’s breakthrough single being notably minimalist in arrangement. Aside from the vocals (Gloria’s voice is audible in the mix, and she was present in the video for a little extra commercial punch) the track was just bass, piano, a little synth, and drum programming with a notable Teddy Riley influence (this being the back end of the New Jack Swing Era). While it sounds surprisingly skeletal today, Emilio’s touch was never less than sure back then and the single hit no. 2 on the adult contemporary chart and no. 5 on the Billboard and UK Top 40 charts. The moody black and white video with a wet-shirted Secada walking disconsolately on a beach probably helped too, but the song’s success is largely a result of canny production and Secada’s writing.

Just Another Day is a surprisingly elusive piece for a commercial ballad, the verses not seeming to follow an exact structure, chords being held for varying lengths of time, changes being more dependent on the detours taken by a meandering, unhurried melody. It’s an odd structure. In the early 1990s a lot of songs — in surprisingly disparate styles, as this was true of house as much as grunge — were structured around progressions of a small number of chords (often four), repeating in defined, frequent cycles. Just Another Day is much more slippery. How much of it is design and how much is happy chance only Secada and his co-writer Miguel A. Morejon could answer, but it does some cool things where chords that end a short section of the verse sequence get unexpectedly held a long time, and then the vocal begins a new phrase over that same chord, subverting the expectation that he’ll go back and repeat the phrase we’ve just heard. It never feels like anything overly odd is going on (we’re always in 4/4, we’re always in the home key), but it definitely rewards close listening. It gives the impression that the verses are being made up on the spot, that they’re a spontaneous outburst of emotion, which is really appropriate to the song’s mood and subject matter. Without a strong chorus to pull it all together, the song would simply have floated up into the atmosphere and the chorus is the song’s trump card. 22 years since Just Another Day’s release (yes, we are now that old), the marriage of a passionately despairing lyric and a switch to the major key is still a move guaranteed to get my attention, and this song may have been the first time I noticed the trick.

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In my head Jon Secada lives on a beach. Chris Isaak too. Possibly they’re neighbours