EMI/The Firm Music
andy Moore was always in the wrong scene. A loser in the teenpop wars of the late 1990s, she halfheartedly attempted to sustain a pop career already superseded by acting with 2002's Mandy Moore, an occasionally terrific album nobody bought; and 2003's Coverage—an entire album of '70s and '80s covers. Coverage's tracklisting said more about Mandy than "Dirrty" did about Christina, even if the songs themselves were often winceable: Mandy liked respectably sappy pop; she liked playfulness and earnestness; she liked XTC and didn't so much miss Andy Partridge's irony as not care. Most of all she liked girls with guitars and lyrics on napkins—covering Carole King and Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell, she liked breaking up with guys and pretty much forgiving them. She liked artists.
Hence Wild Hope. Moore's first album of original material since 2002 doesn't have anything as surprising and lovable as "In My Pocket" or "Saturate Me,” written by people who knew better than Moore; but nor does it have anything as awkward as the singer's first title track "So Real,” written by people who didn't. The cachet of a surprising film career and no public meltdowns has enabled Moore to become what she apparently always wanted to be—a singer-songwriter chick, flowing dress and session band in place, always tasteful, mature to a fault, an aspiring artist. She gets top billing on all twelve songs here, and the names trailing after don't belong to Dr. Luke or the Matrix but to Rachel Yamagata and Lori McKenna. The album is decorated in fuzzy sepia. One song is called "All Good Things,” just like that other one, but eschews Timbaland architecture and Coldplay choruses for a collaboration with indie-folk outfit the Weepies. Well.
The best pop stars tend to falter when they do their own writing, so it's fitting that Moore, always a bad pop star, doesn't. There's nothing here as sublime as the best work of the human factories Moore eschews, but "Most Of Me" casts its hesitant love stories in glittering guitar and an airy pulse that sounds like remembered Sunday afternoons; and choruses like "Looking Forward to Looking Back" shame last year's wave of indie-country because Moore isn't self-conscious enough to feel conflicted about appropriating Nashville hooks. "Extraordinary" swings up and down on string pulses and lazy guitar, and the voluptuous night-wind title track is one of the best things Moore's ever recorded—subtle and rewarding, its wistful cliches quietly earned.
This isn't to call Wild Hope an excellent album. The second half meanders from pleasantry to pleasantry, narrating breakups past and future without urgency, and even the record's best songs come dangerously close to curios. What sustains and elevates Wild Hope is Moore herself: always an underrated singer, she finds in the wistful phrases of her idols the comfort she couldn't in the slippery innards of songs like "Candy.” Her voice is rounder than the teen idols' and calmer than the American Idols'; when properly used it's a chthonic thing that suggests antediluvian wisdom and access to magics out of reach of Avril, Kelly, and Kelly. Which is bullshit, but it's bullshit Moore's spun herself, which—hey look—is what an artist does.