VIDEO: Mandy Moore, "Extraordinary
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a bar having a quiet late-afternoon cocktail when I became aware of an insistent, irritating noise. As I concentrated on it, the noise resolved into a voice somewhere between a mewl and a whine. To my alarm, I realized I knew exactly what the voice was going to say next. And then I realized it was Patti Smith’s cover of “Smells like Teen Spirit.”
Were Smith’s earnest, deadening cover a parody of a folkie attempting to be “with it,” it might match the brilliance of the outtake from A Mighty Wind in which the Folksmen turn the Stones’ “Start Me Up” into a cheery sing-along (“You make a blind man cum/Cummm”). But it ain’t a parody. And as the high priestess droned on, I began wondering why this atrocity has automatic hip cachet when, for the last three years, I’ve had to cajole, beg, shame, and bully people into listening to Mandy Moore’s Coverage.
You’d think that turning your back on the teen pop that made you famous to do a cover album of great ’70s and ’80s pop songs — songs your target audience couldn’t care less about (“Elton who?”) — and getting dumped from your record label would be enough hipness for anyone. Freed from the processed, saccharine pap of her contemporaries, Mandy Moore revealed a rich, warm, surprisingly muscular voice. And, with the lone exception of the irredeemable “Moonshadow” (by Cat Stevens, a/k/a Yusuf Islam), her taste was superb. Coverage (Epic) showed a predilection for the best sort of mainstream singer-songwriter pop: Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” John Hiatt’s “Show a Little Faith in Me,” Joe Jackson’s “Breaking Us in Two,” and, best of all, Joan Armatrading’s “Drop the Pilot,” which Moore turned into a first-class rave-up. “I figured,” she tells me on the phone from Los Angeles, “there were other people my age and younger who had missed out on this music, and I hoped to introduce an audience to it and then, hopefully, get them listening back to the original artists. But nobody really listened to Coverage.”
Some people recognized just how good the album was — Spin called it the best covers album since Bowie Pinups. More typical was the reaction of a friend who, on my recommendation, bought Coverage to teach his toddler about ’70s and ’80s music. A few weeks later, he informed me his wife had thrown it in the trash. (This aesthetic judgment courtesy of people who subject their children to the horror that is the Wiggles.)
Having held out for four years until she could secure a deal allowing her to write her new album and work with musicians of her choosing, Moore returns with the independently released Wild Hope (Firm Music/EMI). She was right to be so stubborn and patient. “If I had been on a major label,” she tells me, “there’s no way that Wild Hope would be what it is. I was being told that I should write with other people, told that other producers would probably be better for the job. So I just stood my ground and made the record I wanted to make. For no other reason than ‘What was the point?’ ” With a disarming bluntness, she adds, “It wasn’t like there was any huge expectation of another album from me. A lot of people don’t even realize that I sing anymore. If I was going to take the time off to do music, I was going to do it right.”
At first listen, Wild Hope might seem like placid adult contemporary pop; after a bit, however, you realize it’s not the result of a marketer’s program — it’s been put together by human beings. On the sepia-tinted cover, Moore reclines in boots and a lacy, antique dress. The sort of “Ladies of the Canyon” look that singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Jackie DeShannon took on in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it conveys the air of a sensitive young thing in her rustic arbor, brewing herbal tea and scribbling poetry in between the suitors who would invariably end up inspiring more of that poetry. But you have to go back to King’s Tapestry, Mitchell’s Blue, and DeShannon’s Laurel Canyon for the rough-hewn quality those chronicles of heartbreak could have. (Singer-songwriter music wasn’t all James Taylor and Cat Stevens.)