Album Review: Mandy Moore, “Amanda Leigh” (2009)

There’s definitely a bit of a stigma when I tell people that I’m a Mandy Moore fan.  I always feel the need to explain away my 1500 plays of her music on last.fm.  Because when you think of the name Mandy Moore, your mind immediately goes to her career as a bubble-gum pop starlet.  Visions of half-shirts, pierced belly buttons and manufactured pop music come to mind.  And since I’m no longer a twelve year old girl, I don’t really want my taste in music to be associated with that.

I’m sure Moore wishes to leave that behind, too.  Because the name Mandy Moore, though once synonymous with those things, is no longer a poster for teen pop.  In the last five years, or so, Moore has transformed her image from pop starlet to a thoughtful singer-songwriter, now less comparable to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and more comparable to Joni Mitchell or Carol King.

Her last album, Wild Hope, fully explored Moore’s new sound for the first time, but her sixth studio album, Amanda Leigh (named after her first and middle name, respectively) , really drives the point home.  The disc is a collection of mature songs, with little in them besides Moore’s sweet vocals, piano, guitar, and her introspective lyrics.

The disc begins with Merrimack River, a jaunty little Harlequin-esque type number.  I know that’s a strange description, but the song itself is a bit strange musically, practically the clavinet that plays throughout the song.  No matter- the song is actually quite beautiful, and as the song goes on we are treated to a lush melody with violins and harmonizing between Moore and the album’s main co-writer, Mike Viola (whom has also worked with Moore’s husband, Ryan Adams in the past). The lyrics are less about the Merrimack River in Massachusetts, and more about indifference in a relationship (“Don’t say you’re not amazed when you know you are/Don’t say you’re not afraid when you know you are.”)  Moore’s vocals and the vivid portrait that the lyrics create are wonderful, and makes for a brilliant start to the album.

Next up is Fern Dell, a faster-paced, folksy number that would’ve fit in nicely with the songs on Wild Hope.  The song is pleasant, as are Moore’s vocals (but aren’t they always?), though it’s nothing entirely remarkable.  The same could be said of the album’s lead song and the only thing on the album even somewhat reminiscent of Moore’s earlier work, I Could Break Your Heart Any Day Of The Week.  The first time I heard the song, it definitely rubbed me the wrong way- the overproduced sound, and over the top backing music (right down to peppy’s 80-sounding hand claps in the background) turned me off.  I warmed to the song after a few listens, but I still don’t see where the track finds a place among the rest of the album.  Sure, it’s cute and the lyrics are fun (“I’ll make this painless, try to be sweet/I could break your heart any day of the week”), but the song definitely doesn’t go along with the more mature songwriting and sound of the album.

Pocket Philosopher is another pop song, though it’s put together much better than the track before it.  The production is stripped down and back to the basic piano/drum combination, and Viola returns as a backing vocalist.  The incredibly optimistic verses and chorus (“Now I’m walking on my own two feet/The sun is shining, my shadow is stretched across the street”) always make me smile, and the song is a peppy treat.

The album slows down a bit from this point on.  Song About Home is a slow, almost dreary, ballad that took repeated listens for me to get into.  Moore’s vocals are lovely as ever, and the sound and lyrics definitely call to mind Carol King (“Oh, I am not afraid of alone/No, I am not afraid of my own missteps/There’s no regrets, at least not yet, not yet”), but the song certainly goes on for far too long with the same simplistic melody and straight vocals, making it easy to feel like the four minutes drag on for ten.  I do applaud Moore for writing a nice melody and lyrics, but the song just stays home (no pun intended) for far too long without really going anywhere.  Everblue has the same exact problem.  Again, the song is a pretty one- stripped down to just a backing drum loop and Moore’s vocals, and more of the emphasis is placed on the lyrics and simple chorus (“What if I loved you?/Everblue…”) Once again, I appreciate Moore’s sentiment- a nice melody, nice lyrics, nice vocals- but it’s all a little too safe and dull at some moments.  The Merrimack River (Reprise) does nothing to liven things up- we are introduced to a minute long instrumental version of the song, which is nothing more than a bunch of plinky instruments (it really reminds me of circus music- like the stuff you imagine hearing at a sideshow or on a carousel or something), and strings.  The reprise isn’t unwelcome, exactly, and it does tie in nicely with the rest of the album, I suppose, but it’s entirely unnecessary.

Love To Love Me Back is a country-western song, which is just a bit odd to hear at this point of the album, when all the rest of the songs have been either pop or folk.  However, Moore pulls it off nicely- pure vocals and honest lyrics (“I want love to love me back/I want two-way conversations/I want love to love me back”) make the song worth listening to.

One of my favorite songs on the album is Indian Summer.  Moore definitely summons a page from Carol King with this piano-based, mid-tempo ballad.   The thing that’s so perfect about this song it’s incredibly straightforward- the steady melody and Moore’s gentle voice perfectly compliment the lyrics (“I want your number so we can talk/I can’t remember the last time I felt so lost/You changed your address, you changed your name/You were an Indian Summer, I’m still the same”).  I listened to this album A LOT when it was first released this summer, and now I always equate this song with a comfortable, calm, rainy summer afternoon, which is almost exactly what it sounds like.  Sadly, Nothing Everything, puts the album back in mediocrity.  The song’s another upbeat one, where the production is more apparent, but it doesn’t really have any saving grace.  The lyrics are amateurish (“So wrap me in your arms/And keep me in your heart/I only want the best for you”) and even the harmonies between Moore and Viola feel uninspired.  The song is another that sounds like an extra from Wild Hope, and I’m actually finding myself wondering if it wasn’t just a shelved song that they dug back up.  The song isn’t horrible, by any means, but it’s definitely not the kind of material you’d expect to hear from Moore at this point in the album.

Thankfully, the album ends on a wonderful note with the ballad, Bug. Moore supposedly wrote the song about husband Ryan Adams, and the title comes from Adam’s nickname for her.  Again, the charm of the song lies in how straightforward it is- production is stripped down to just acoustic guitar and Moore’s vocals and the lyrics paint a vivid picture of the strains of a mostly long-distance relationship (“Is this the only way for/Us to communicate/I put it in a song/Didn’t really take too long/Coming around again”) . Oddly enough, during this summer (’09) when the album was released, I had my own experience with dating a travelling musician, so this was my go to song during the whole experience.  I knew exactly what Moore feels as she sings, “You know I love you, what am I supposed to do? I’ve been here before. I stay on track, you’re all over the map- come back to New York” during the choruses.  Of course, my own personal connection makes this song a favorite for me, but I think anyone could appreciate the beauty of the song and the story that Moore tells with the lyrics.

Mandy Moore is a breath of fresh air in the music world and Amanda Leigh is definitely evidence of that.  Moore has carefully stripped away her pop-music persona, and has successfully fallen into the world of folk-pop and the sound is a perfect fit for her.  I’ll be waiting anxiously for her next release.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. Merrimack River
2. Fern Dell
3. I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week
4. Pocket Philosopher
5. Song About Home
6. Everblue
7. Merrimack River (Reprise)
8. Love to Love Me Back
9. Indian Summer
10. Nothing Everything
11. Bug

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsCr9TJ84EE]
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