Here’s a question: If Britney Spears is the new Madonna (a big “if,” I know), who’s Mandy Moore? One of the younger contestants in the teen-diva sweepstakes, Moore owes just about everything she’s got—her look, her career, her frothy dance pop—to the apparently inimitable Spears, who, next to the dolled-up and dumbed-down likes of Mandy and Jessica and Christina, is starting to look like a genuine pop avatar, a high-concept artiste for the easily amused and pruriently interested.

Speaking as a proud member of that demographic, I feel completely qualified to say that Moore isn’t fit to unzip Britney’s red-leather space suit, at least not on the evidence of the arid and oddly sexless Mandy Moore, the singer’s third LP. I mean, if being a hip-shakin’ 17-year-old hottie is your job description, surely you have to do better than “I never thought I could love again/Then you came and changed something within,” a lame, inexplicably middle-aged couplet that shows up in the fashionably sitar-splashed “You Remind Me.” With Celine Dion-worthy sentiments like that, it’s a good thing that Moore has her own MTV gig (the weirdly, possessively titled MTV’s Mandy), and it’s even better that she’s everyone’s favorite baby sitter on TRL—Carson who?—because it doesn’t look like this teen-diva thing is working out.

Mandy Moore comes with two main, um, musical, er, ideas, both of which are recycled from vastly superior sources. First, there’s a trancy triphop ambience poorly transplanted straight from the heart of Madonna’s last two ear-opening LPs, 1998’s Ray of Light and last year’s Music, as well as from “Beautiful Stranger,” the sacrilegious icon’s contribution to the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack. On each of those platters, Madonna, usually under the tutelage of ambient gurus William Orbit and Mirwais Ahmadzai, laced crowd-pleasing dance beats through electronic soundscapes, creating avant-pop records that connect with both your body and your mind. But on Mandy Moore, sitars plink and drums loop with all the experimental abandon of a Three’s Company rerun—y’know, the one where Chrissy thinks that Jack thinks that Janet…Oh! The inanity! Even worse, Moore’s overheated backing band frequently serves up pseudo-Easternized psychedelic flourishes so lame they’ll actually contract your mind.

The disc’s other idea is slightly less odious, though, and, if stronger song doctors get called in next time around, might even provide a cure for Moore’s Tiffanyesque malaise. On the album’s better songs, Moore gets back in touch with her roots, indulging in a little early-’90s, female-fronted-jangle-pop nostalgia. Y’know, like the Cranberries, but less shrill. Or like the Sundays, but more popular. Or like Lisa Loeb, but with color contacts. The fizzy “Crush” is heavily indebted to the bespectacled one’s “Stay,” which Moore must have performed a million times in front of her bedroom mirror as a 10-year-old. The disc’s most memorable track, “Crush” is a light and airy AM-radio pop song complete with chiming guitars, a lilting melody, and a vocal performance from Moore that makes it sound as if she’s actually experienced unrequited love for once in her charmed life—which I sincerely doubt. “Turn the Clock Around,” a shiny pop-rocker that’s learned a thing or two from Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” makes a similar virtue of disposability.

Unfortunately, Moore is in dull-thud dance mode for most of the record, and tracks such as the monotonously percolating “One Sided Love” are far more characteristic of the album than “Crush.” “Saturate Me” is the disc’s—and maybe the teen-diva movement’s—absolute nadir. A dance song that at least begins with a potentially provocative title, the track turns out to be mainly about needing a good moisturizer: “My lips are chapped/They’re parched and dry,” sings the apparently desiccated Moore. “There’s no mistaking the barrage/Of sand and wind that tears my skin.” (In another development, completely unrelated, of course, Moore has also signed on as a spokesperson for Neutrogena. Jennifer Love who?)

But at least Moore is singing what she knows; effective hydration is close to every model’s heart. And a model, of course, is precisely what Moore is. And as Mandy Moore’s pouty, Teen People-ready cover art reveals, she’s looking good. You’d like to take her home; that’s understood. But if you did, you probably wouldn’t get very far. Spears may be like a virgin, but you can tell from her records that she’s been to third base at least once or twice. Moore, on the other hand, seems more like a strikeout ice princess—so busy with her makeup that she doesn’t have time to make out. At least not with the likes of you.

With competition like Moore, how can Spears help but be a luminary? It’s happened by default. Spears may or may not be the new Madonna; only time (she’s just 19), a nascent film career (will it bomb as thoroughly?), and her next record (coming later this fall!) will tell. It’s not too early to make the call on Mandy Moore, though. Forgettable even by teen-diva standards, she’s the new Paula Abdul.

Stone Temple Pilots started out wanting to be the new Pearl Jam or, on better days, the new Nirvana. Trouble was, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were new, too—a potentially embarrassing detail that vocalist Scott Weiland managed to parlay into his group’s business plan. From the outset, STP concocted a more radio-ready sound than most of their peers, and, with their early records especially, found a niche as pop-savvy lesser lights, letting other groups do the heavy sonic lifting while they cut all the angst and over-the-top emotion of grunge down to bite-size AOR chunks. True, the group’s music only occasionally tasted great (“Interstate Love Song” is still delicious), but, for better and worse, it was definitely less filling.

But the Pilots’ days as elegant bachelors, as Stephen Malkmus once derided them, are long gone. Now that they’ve become grizzled, 30-something vets, STP apparently believe that they’ve got something to prove, kick-starting their new Shangri-La Dee Da with the ferocious “Dumb Love.” A raging slab of thunderous riff rock, the track is the heaviest thing the group has ever recorded, sounding as if Weiland and his merry band of pale imitators have finally pried Ten from the turntable and slapped on some vintage Soundgarden, whose punishing metal crunch the song carefully—and more or less successfully—emulates. The Zep retread “Regeneration” and the scratch-happy “Coma” follow suit, though here STP forgo the ‘Garden’s dirt-weed rough edges for the sinsemilla finish of Alice in Chains and latter-day soulmates Limp Bizkit, with whom Weiland has been known to hang.

Weiland has also been known to have, shall we say, a chemically shortened attention span, which may explain why Shangri-La Dee Da lurches so spastically from one end of the sonic spectrum to the other. For every metallic headbanger like “Dumb Love,” STP also sneak in a track like “Days of the Week,” a ringing pop song that sounds as if it’s been trapped in the New Wave spin cycle for, oh, 20 years or so. Sweetly harmonious and excessively catchy, the track suggests that Weiland has a few XTC and Joe Jackson records tucked in among his Mudhoney and Melvins discs. The Cheap Trick-styled “Wonderful” and the Elliott Smith knockoff “Too Cool Queenie” are also shimmering confections, completely at odds with the dirge-metal the band coughs up elsewhere on the album.

Nothing on Shangri-La Dee Da comes near the best work of the folks STP ape, of course, but then Pearl Jam hasn’t gotten anywhere near its peak since Vitalogy, either. And where the hell is Joe Jackson, anyway? Compared with the prospect of another Alice in Chains disc, though, STP’s new LP seems positively harmless. It even makes for a fun-filled evening or two of Spot the Influence, with the band throwing just one absolute buzzkiller into the mix, the strutting “Hollywood Bitch.” Aerosmith-trashy through the verse and R.E.M.-dopey on the chorus, the track suddenly turns Limp Bizkit-Cro-Magnon when Weiland, who’s old enough to know better, starts decrying a “Hollywood bitch/So fake that she seems real.” Musically, the song is a testosterone-fueled cock-rock opus, but lyrically the track suggests that Weiland may finally be getting in touch with his feminine side. I mean, look who’s talking. CP

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