CD Review of Wild Hope by Mandy Moore

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Wild Hope
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: EMI/The Firm
Released: 2007
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In 1999, during the height of TRL mania, Mandy Moore arrived as Epic’s hat in the teen-pop ring, singing poorly written second-tier bubblegum like “Candy” and flouncing her way through jailbait videos. Aside from her extreme youth – she was 15, you perverts – Moore offered little to set herself apart from a crowded pack of starlets who, if they weren’t more talented vocally, were at least getting better material to work with.

Fast forward eight years, and my, how things have changed. To a lot of jaded observers, Britney, Christina, and their peers were little more than updated versions of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, and the New Kids on the Block, and those acts were just old teen idols with a new coat of paint; in other words, here today, gone tomorrow. And yet most of those acts are still around – hell, even Jessica Simpson still sells records. A surprising number of the TRL kids have managed to make the transition to ‘adult’ artist – even, wonder of wonders, Mandy Moore.

This can partly be chalked up to the explosion in “celebrity” culture that has converted middling singers like Simpson and Nick Lachey from boring recording artists into tabloid fodder and reality television stars; one imagines that if TMZ or Perez Hilton had been around when Tiffany took her parents to court, her career might not have faded out so quickly. Credit must also be given to the singers themselves, however – these kids are much savvier than their forebears, and Mandy Moore is a case in point. Where most of her peers generated buzz by going “edgy,” both in and out of the recording studio, Moore has always presented herself as a down-to-earth, fresh-faced alternative to the barefoot, Frito-gobbling antics of, say, Britney Spears. She has also helped her case by starring in at least one movie that didn’t totally suck.

On the musical front, Moore has been – what’s the phrase – less successful, but it hasn’t been for lack of effort. After her teen-pop records stopped selling, she assembled Coverage, a wonderful-in-theory collection of Mandy’s takes on singer-songwriter standards of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was a terrific idea on paper, and she displayed excellent taste in covers and collaborators, but her polite vocals weren’t the greatest fit for songs like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Drop the Pilot.”

Still, the album suggested that the heart of an artist might beat within Moore’s preposterously hot body, which is why, when word got out that she was writing songs with tasteful folk-pop darlings like Lori McKenna, the Weepies, and Chantal Kreviazuk, eyebrows raised. If she were really interested in selling records, Moore would be buying beats from Scott Storch, not co-writing with artists rarely heard outside of New England dorm rooms; this left turn, like the one before it, indicates that what she really wants to do is make interesting music.

Unfortunately, she hasn’t done that here. Every song – and every line of every song – on this album is gently, winsomely earnest, but there isn’t anything particularly wild (or even hopeful) about Wild Hope. The leadoff track, “Extraordinary,” is unquestionably the best thing Moore’s ever recorded – it’s catchy, light as a breeze, and at under three minutes, is perfect for the soundtrack of a romantic comedy starring Mandy Moore – but the rest of the album settles quickly into a tasteful, sepia-toned haze. She’s shooting for Joni Mitchell or Joan Armtrading territory here, but the end result is closer to Carole King’s Tapestry, with self-esteem issues and less interesting songs.

You really can’t fault Moore for trying, and it isn’t hard to see these songs going over well with the post-breakup college freshman set, which is probably about right anyway. Still, for an artist so clearly angling for timelessness, Wild Hope can only be considered a frustratingly bland disappointment.

~Jeff Giles