The miseducation of Mandy Moore began long ago. As teenage jailbait, part of that whole late ’90s mania, her gamine chords and akimbo limbs were unwittingly square-pegged into the curvesome unholiness of the Britney/Xtina/Jessica trifecta. But those three media-whores (I’m sorry, two media-whores and a preacher’s daughter) coveted their personas. Poor Mandy, judging by the video to her first single, “Candy”, repelled it. Her then-gawkish frame couldn’t handle the cheerleader choreography. She didn’t seem particularly interested in the sk8r bois she was directed to moon over. And she looked awfully young to be behind the wheel of that Starburst-lime Beetle.
By 2003, Moore had learned how to speak up for herself, but not yet how to sing in her own voice. She went on record calling pretty much anything she’d ever done “just awful” and offering the general public out-of-pocket refunds, then released Coverage, an unfortunately titled collection of 1970s singer-songwriter material like Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” and Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow”, all of which she handled with capable vocals but without any deeply felt justification for why she was singing in the first place. Four years later, her one-off cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella“, blanketed in desire and regret, would become a shining, seductive example of how Moore could do girl-sings-the-blues as well as any pop performer; at the same time, her fourth studio album, the folk-veined Wild Hope, may as well have been written by any feminist-studies freshwoman after attending a self-empowerment seminar.
It’s time for the real Mandy Moore to please pipe up, and so her latest album goes by Amanda Leigh — Moore’s “real” first and middle names. It’s also time for Mandy Moore (recent marriage to Ryan Adams notwithstanding) to grow up, musically speaking. Her catalog has yet to progress beyond the emotional relevance of a high-school yearbook, and like that adolescent vestige, Amanda Leigh is at times a very awkward pastiche of a still-young woman trying to figure out just who she is and hopes to be.
A dinky, jewelry-box waltz, “Merrimack River” opens the album, with Moore doing a Sandra Dee impression while tossing off scattershot images of blooming jacarandas, crashing waves, frozen waters, rolling thunder, mouths full of broken glass and, most tellingly, “candy-coated promise.” A B-side on any other album, here “Merrimack River” actually receives an instrumental reprise later on, but hey, at least it doesn’t come off as pompous, just pointless. (Likewise, it leaves me not annoyed, merely weirdly amused.) The second track is the more foreboding and driven “Fern Dell”, a track that I am simply incapable of getting into because, well, who wants to listen to a song about a valley full of ferns? (Secondarily, I think that song is about an incompatible lover.)
Scars Moore bears from past heartbreaks — as we all know, her famous ex-flames include tennis player Andy Roddick and pie-faced “Scrubs” star Zach Braff — shimmer on “Love to Love Me Back”, by far the album’s most worthwhile number. As Moore ponders whether she’s got it in her to “handle your tortured heart, even piece it together whenever you ripped it apart,” its asphalt-country, Freedy Johnston vibe serves her vocal work very well, as it also does on the final track, a sweet, little ditty called “Bug”. Given such potential, I can only wish she’d figure out what the hell she’s doing on tracks like “Pocket Philosopher”, sort of like a Petula Clark-voiced show tune, and “Song About Home,” which begins with the wispy flute tweets and mellow harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young before drifting into banality and forgettableness. Sadly, there really is nothing vital about Mandy Moore’s music, only pretty. I read not too long ago an article in which one of Moore’s producers asked her why someone should buy a Mandy Moore album; she didn’t know.
I’d say that goes double for Amanda Leigh‘s awful first single, “I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week”, which ranks as more saccharine than anything Moore sang while showing her midriff. Structured a la “Got My Mind Set On You” (i.e. repeating its own title ad nauseum), its plasticky synth-hooks, strange tinniness and Robin Sparkles-esque delivery necessitate that it only ever be played in the shopping gallerias of the greater Murfreesboro area. Mandy Moore may have pulled herself out of the malls, but she’s yet to get the mall out of the girl.
“I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week”