Barry Manilow

Barry Manilow II

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Barry Manilow II proves a more focused affair than his debut album; he's refined the hallmarks of his style, the arrangements aren't so busy, and he's not trying so hard to show all the genres that he's mastered. "The Two of Us" shows how fast Manilow matured since the debut album; the stripped-down, intimate production suits his lovelorn lyrics. In fact, nearly all the songs cover affairs of the heart, giving the album a thematic unity that it might otherwise lack. "I Want to Be Somebody's Baby" and "Somethin's Comin' Up" glow with the sunny optimism for which Manilow is so rightly known (and viciously lampooned at times, too). Burt Bacharach's lyricist, Hal David, proffers his usual incisive contributions to "Early Morning Strangers" ("It's hard to make small talk when there's nothing to say"); the bright horns and bouncy tempo effectively contrast the mood. "Avenue C"'s giddy '40s-era swing forecasts Manilow's later moves into torch songs and jazz standards, but the most remarkable songs are two largely solo piano ballads that follow each other near the end. "Sandra" takes the voice of a lonely housewife looking back at missed opportunities, while "Home Again" looks at a couple who've fallen apart -- and want to make up for lost time. Both songs reflect yet another quality that endears Manilow to audiences -- the ability to connect with life's underdogs and give life to their feelings. "It's a Miracle" and "Mandy" are rightly the best-known songs, but listeners will find no shortage of rewards to divert them here.

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