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Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007 11:45 am

Eleni Mandell’s timeless Miracle

She has two killer voices: the singing kind and the writing kind

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Eleni Mandell Miracle of Five (Zedtone)
Untitled Document Eleni Mandell might not be the best singer in the world, at least by American Idol criteria, but she’s got a voice to die for. More precisely, she has two killer voices: the singing kind and the writing kind. Both are exquisitely expressive, instantly recognizable, and so perfectly symbiotic that describing one necessitates describing the other. If her range is somewhat limited, her pitch at times uncertain, so be it; like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and so many other great singer/songwriters, she doesn’t disguise her flaws so much as exploit them. The imperfections only underscore her vulnerability, the fact that she’s a human being, not some Pro Tool-ed android. Her genius is recombinant, unstable, an unlikely fusion of apparent anomalies: Imagine the love child of Patsy Cline and Tom Waits, or maybe Julie London and Raymond Chandler. Mandell, a model of restraint, would never resort to such extravagant metaphor-mongering, but, then again, she doesn’t have to. She just opens her mouth, and little miracles slip out. Miracle of Five, Mandell’s sixth album, picks up where her previous one, 2004’s Afternoon, left off. Both records are oddly atavistic, evoking a sepia-tinted past that’s one part memory and two parts myth, but, as great as Afternoon was, Miracle is better. All traces of hipsterist shtick have vanished. Where she once indulged in schizoid genre exercises — here a punked-up Wanda Jackson, there a postmodern Peggy Lee — she now shepherds her influences into one seamless style that’s uniquely her own. Although her songs still draw on bygone traditions, particularly cabaret, classic country, and the Great American Songbook, Miracle is no retro hodgepodge, careering from one old-timey form to the next. Instead, it’s an album that’s both of its time and beyond it. Moreover, Miracle just plain sounds better than her previous albums. Producer Andy Kaulkin makes the most of her drowsy contralto, keeping the accompaniment spare so that she doesn’t have to strain to be heard. Mandell is a crooner, not a belter, and she thrives in intimate settings. To be sure, there are many different instruments in the mix — including saxophone, clarinet, Dobro, banjo, harp, and viola — but Kaulkin layers them judiciously, punctuating her voice instead of competing with it. The supporting musicians are all first rate, especially longtime drummer Kevin Fitzgerald and his former Geraldine Fibbers colleague Nels Cline (more recently of Wilco) on electric guitar, lap steel, and assorted noises. The great D.J. Bonebrake (X drummer/linchpin) puts in a memorable appearance on vibes, and Kaulkin, a versatile keyboardist, supplies honky-tonk piano, churchy organ, and dreamy celeste. What really distinguishes the album, though, is the sheer craftsmanship of the songs. Mandell has a gift for uncovering the mystery beneath the simplest melody, the most prosaic phrase. The theme of the album is love, the oldest subject imaginable, yet she manages to find new ways to limn its endless permutations. There’s the sweetly boastful narrator of “Girls,” who tries to win over her Casanova boyfriend with a pitch that’s as hopeful as it is heartbreaking: “I am a marble the color of candy/I’ll make you money whenever you’re gambling/I am the dice you roll in the alley/I am the pennies that come in handy.” There’s the bleakly hilarious heroine of “My Twin,” who imagines four possible outcomes for her future soulmate, all disastrous (his train derails, his plane crashes, his ship sinks, a fire devours him). There’s the desperate adulteress of “Somebody Else,” the magical-thinking ingenue of “Miracle of Five,” the cautiously optimistic, possibly delusional party girl of “Make-Out King.” Love, Mandell suggests, is a many-splendored thing, but it’s also full of splinters.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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