Jesus of Cool: In Praise of Mandy Moore

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

Here in the etherworldly state of Serious Pop Culture Fandom, Internet division, it’s traditional to set impossibly high quality standards and then smite with mighty (and snarky) blows any album/film/novel that isn’t up to snuff. But sometimes you happen upon an artist whose work gnaws away at you, even though you know it’s not all that great — maybe because you can respect the intention behind it, or maybe because you can spot a glimmer of greatness buried in what’s really only a pretty-good vocal. And sometimes you just want to cut an artist some slack.

For me, Mandy Moore is such an artist, and I’ll tell you why: Because she’s making an effort. From humble, frankly questionable origins — she was part of the constellation of starlets plucked out of Orlando, Fla., in the post-Britney-Xtina-Justin-Jessica hysteria of the late ’90s — Mandy has managed to build truly interesting careers in both music and movies. In each field she has evolved from a generic teen star into a mature performer who is as comfortable taking detours as she is with mainstream fluff. (Hey, if she can land a gig playing herself as Vincent Chase’s love-obsession/Aquaman co-star, she’s gotta be doing something right.)

Because she’s taking chances and making some out-of-left-field choices, both in songs and in film roles, she may never climb to the commercial heights reached by her peers in the millennial teen-pop craze. She hasn’t made for much of a tabloid presence either, despite dating Wilmer (but then, who hasn’t, if he’s to be believed?), Andy Roddick and Zach Braff. (Lately, if you must know, she’s been seeing singer Greg Laswell.) But even if superstardom and panties-free limo rides don’t seem to be in her future, Mandy has spent her professional life making a bed she can lie in and still respect herself in the morning. So suck on that, Brit!

I was oblivious to Mandy’s charms for years after her debuts on both CD and celluloid. I finally encountered her during the summer of 2003 as an unfamiliar voice wafting through the racks in the Virgin Megastore in West Hollywood, singing her first (and, to date, only) Top 40 hit, “I Wanna Be With You” (download). The song is a notch or two better than standard-issue puppy-love pop, but it’s her vocal that sends it soaring: breathy, innocent, romantic — and totally seductive. She leads with her heart, not her crotch, and in the 21st century that’s a novel approach for a chick singer. Here’s an acoustic version:

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A few months later she released her fourth album (or maybe her third — the second was kind of a do-over of the first, so it’s hard to say whether they both count), Coverage. When an artist in mid-career releases a covers album — taking for granted that many such collections are little more than stopgaps between “proper” albums — the song choices usually reflect either the artist’s own tastes, or else the presumed tastes of that artist’s audience. But Coverage did something completely different; it exploded all notions of what Mandy Moore was about, and set her career off on a completely new trajectory.

The track listing for Coverage, in retrospect, is pretty mainstream: lots of singer-songwriter stuff, a little Carole King, a little Joni Mitchell, an attempt to rock out on “One Way or Another.” But at that time, in the context of her earlier music, it was the first two song titles that leapt off the list: XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime” (download) and the Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” (download). With those two songs Mandy was announcing to the adult world, “I’m Not Who You Think I Am,” and she was challenging the tweens who had bought her earlier albums to take a big leap forward with her, to grow up a little faster.

She was growing up too fast, apparently, for producer/engineer John Fields, whose kitchen-sink arrangements seemed hellbent on keeping one of Mandy’s toes in the dance-pop realm while the rest of her dove into maturity. The whole album plays as though the “bright” knob has been turned up to 11. Nevertheless, Mandy acquits herself admirably as a vocalist and passably as an interpreter of songs that were written 20-30 years before her time.

More important, Coverage was something like a public service, even if it wasn’t a particularly successful one. Rather than choosing an uptempo track like Joan Armatrading’s “Drop the Pilot” (download) as a first single, Sony picked John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me” and it failed to chart. In the end, the album sold only about 300,000 copies — more than a hundred grand fewer than her previous album, and a result disappointing enough that Sony dropped her soon after. Still, as far as I’m concerned, if Mandy’s version of “Can We Still Be Friends” sent even a fraction of her young audience in search of Something/Anything, or if “Drop the Pilot” produced any kind of run on Armatrading downloads among teenage girls, then Coverage accomplished a great deal.

That same year Mandy starred in How To Deal, one of the sturdier of the girl-coming-of-age flicks that have become so prevalent in this decade. In 2004 Moore made an acting choice that represented a Coverage-style leap forward, playing the bitchy Christian-teen-from-hell Hillary Faye in Brian Dannelly’s indie comedy Saved! It’s a role that lets her play both with and against her image as the most virginal of the teen divas — a persona that she tweaked again a couple years later in Paul Weitz’s “American Idol” satire American Dreamz.

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That film promised so much more than it delivered. With Hugh Grant as Simon Cowell, a dumbass president (Dennis Quaid) who has a breakdown and decides to start reading the newspapers, a terrorist who reaches a reality-show finale but becomes too enamored of America’s shiny-shallow culture to destroy it — and, of course, Mandy as a cynical Kelly Clarkson wannabe — American Dreamz had our mid-noughties zeitgeist in a bottle. Unfortunately, it largely blew it. However, the film improves on repeat viewing, and one imagines that 40 years from now Robert Osborne will balance himself on his walker as he creeps toward the camera to introduce American Dreamz on TCM, calling it one of the films that best represents this disastrous era in our history.

Mandy has since starred in two of the most poorly reviewed films of 2007, the mother-daughter clunker Because I Said So and the Catholic-marriage stinker License to Wed. (Tomatometer scores on RottenTomatoes.com: 5% and 8%, respectively. Ouch!) But I can still praise Mandy Moore because I know how to ignore such mainstream dogs, the same way I had previously ignored A Walk to Remember and her unconvincing early-career dance-pop, while I wait for her to do something more interesting — like Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko follow-up Southland Tales. (OK, so Southland Tales is a big mess, but it’s such an interesting mess that it demands to be seen more than once. And Mandy’s terrific in it.)

Even better, Mandy returned to recording in 2007 with Wild Hope, an album of original tunes that represents her full-blown leap into adult pop. She recorded it in a secluded house in Woodstock, NY, and while Wild Hope is no Music from Big Pink, she settles comfortably into an acoustic-driven vibe similar to Sheryl Crow or Paula Cole (with whom she toured last fall). On one level the album feels like another left turn — some reviews, overplaying things a bit, have taken to referring to her as a “folk singer.” But on another, songs like “Extraordinary” (download) and “All Good Things” (download) — both of which she co-wrote with the wonderful Weepies, Deb Talan and Steve Tannen — can be seen as points on a continuum that started with “I Wanna Be With You” and continued through her excellent Coverage take on Joe Jackson’s “Breaking Us in Two.”

I look forward to seeing where she goes next. I expect to be surprised. In the meantime — as it’s been raining like crazy all week here in the L.A. area — join me in hanging out for awhile under Mandy’s “Umbrella”:

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