In the old days, fans and music critics saw little wrong with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald revitalizing standards instead of composing originals. With subtle yet distinct twists in phrasing and pacing, these performers infused their own personalities into the familiar tunes. Now, performers must be double threats, equally adept with a scale and a turn of phrase. It's an unusual standard; few disciplines demand such prerequisite intellectual and artistic adequacy.
Jingle Jam 5 presents a unique opportunity to view this phenomenon's full continuum, from conflicted, confessional lyricist (Liz Phair) to the relentlessly average poster child for the "at least she's writing her own stuff" movement (Michelle Branch) to the shamelessly artificial teen idol (Hilary Duff). The most interesting case is Mandy Moore, a nineteen-year-old whose recent covers album, Coverage, asserts her independence without using her own words. Moore emerged five years ago with one of the most baffling choruses in bubblegum history (I'm missing you like candy). But instead of announcing her maturity by shedding clothes and talking dirty, she's revealing her newfound love for XTC and Joe Jackson. More than a few Phair fans might leave the Uptown Theater with a new crush.
On the DVD that accompanies Coverage, Moore admits to having discovered most of the artists she covers within the past couple of years. She also rambles, in mind-numbing detail, about her pets, snack habits and vintage-shirt collection. (Apparently, her nice-but-boring film roles don't require much of a stretch.) And she says she's a "huge fan" of both Bette Midler and Joan Armatrading, thus becoming the only teenager alive to make that claim.
Moore's no power-pop expert, but with the likes of Jellyfish's Andy Sturmer, Semisonic's Dan Wilson and Evan Dando on hand for Coverage, she didn't need to worry much about authenticity. And just as he did for another throwback project, Andrew W.K., producer John Fields coated every track with a glossy, cosmetic sheen, one that embellishes strengths rather than merely masking flaws.
One of Moore's stated goals for Coverage was to make the songs "a bit more contemporary," but what feels to her like a modern touch might strike others as blasphemy. Five seconds into XTC's "Senses Working Overtime," the album's first track, an ill-advised lite-hop DJ scratch seems to be an inscrutable omen for the project's failure. But Moore's aggressively catchy "Senses" overcomes such inanities, settling into an appealing acoustic-and-electric groove decorated by winsome back-up vocals, and the rest of the tunes skirt such sacrilege.
Moore isn't as ambitious as Cat Power, who, on her Covers Record, turned one of the most recognizable rock tunes in history (the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction") into a likable, lethargic lament. But she flashes her own Cat (Stevens) power on "Moonshadow," unleashing a surprisingly supple vocal on the simple ditty. She also flexes some vocal muscle (she has been working out with a trainer, the DVD reveals) on Joe Jackson's "Breaking Us in Two," especially during the track's cooing conclusion.
It would be enjoyable to see Moore become an advocate for unfashionable pop, subversively getting the type of tunes classic-rock radio ignores onto the teeny-bop airwaves, but all indications suggest that Coverage is a one-off. (Her purchase of Randy Newman's Songbook 1 on a recent Entertainment Weekly-chaperoned shopping trip does inspire optimism, though.) Instead, she plans to start writing her own material, when she's not promoting her three 2004 film releases. (Most intriguing is the Michael Stipe-produced Saved, in which she knocks her stock character on its ear by playing an evil Christian.)
Perhaps Moore will unwittingly spark a new cottage industry in which overlooked pop acts find their champions in amazingly attractive female singers. In the most far-out scenario, the likes of Matthew Sweet and Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger might end up as the ghost contributors behind a lip-synching band of actresses. (Oh, wait, that already happened with the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack.) On the one hand, it would be distressing to see talents who deserve to be stars in their own right relegated to screenwriter-style faceless obscurity. On the other, for every cherry-picked power-pop tune, there's one less check going to Diane Warren or Max Martin, and one less tepid original is released to an inexplicably accommodating public.