Life is a miracle. Just ask Eleni Mandell.
Backed by some of today's best studio musicians and replete with
Mandell's musings of a "life less ordinary," Miracle
Of Five is the L.A. songstress's sixth full-length album to
date. And it shows promise of being one of the year's best.
"Moonglow, Lamp Low" starts the album off with a whisper.
Lush acoustic strums and the mellow vibrations of an upright bass
ease this jazzy number forward. With Mandell's honey-sweet vocals
and lyrics akin to a bedtime story, she sings, "Moonbeam,
sleeping/All I need is a sweet dream/and true love, just like
sugar, in my coffee." The chorus, with its lullaby poetics
and melodies that could pluck even the rustiest heartstrings back
in tune, is one of the loveliest moments on the album. "The
sky says goodbye with the wink of an eye," she sings. To
the west, the blue air yawns above windows that "are shining
as the sun goes down fighting," and "the houses on the
hill are getting undressed." It's the kind of song Jimmy
Durante would have sung perfectly.
Though with fuller instrumentation, the track "Somebody
Else" moves with a similar surreal vibe. Gentle guitars and
brushed-snares beautifully drape lyrical images that somehow make
ordinary things seem dreamlike. As the opening lines show, "There
are wings in his eyes/Beautiful butterflies/Silvery greens like
the moss on the trees." As in "Moonbeam," "Somebody
else" articulates the tension between the carefree love of
daydreams and the difficult love of ordinary days. The chorus
is especially vivid in doing this, Mandell singing, "He's
kind and he's careful, I know that I'll see him sometime/He's
sweet and he's gentle, opens my door and he closes mine."
Violin melodies follow the chorus. These melodies, like the lyrics,
sound both real and ethereal at once. As a result, the words and
musical orchestrations compliment each other wonderfully. This
very technique is what Eleni Mandell and her band does best, giving
the songs a holistic quality.
Most of Miracle Of Five has this interplay of "the
dreamt" and "the lived." But its best track is
a stark, no-nonsense tune that spins its tires along dreamless,
snow covered roads. On "Salt Truck," Mandell somehow
manages to take the most mundane piece of machinery since the
lawnmower and turn it into an icon. As folksy guitars drive the
song, Mandell sings, "Salt truck, salt truck clear my path/all
my dreams have frozen fast/I want roads that I can drive on/I
want a love I can rely on." A bounty of themes and interpretations
can be drawn from these straightforward lyrics. Perhaps they illustrate
humanity's powerlessness in the face of nature, as the narrator
slides on the "mean black ice." Maybe the song personifies
modern society's dependence on technology for control and stability.
Hell, one could even draw some clever parallels between the Mighty
"Salt Truck" and the Divine. It's even possible that
the narrator's just in a bad mood and wishes the town's plowman
would do his damn job. There's no finality of interpretations,
and that's what makes this song remarkable.
There is a sort of "cuteness," in much of Mandell's
songs. Still, tracks like "My Twin" show Eleni Mandell
is no lightweight. This dark tale has the psychological twists
and brooding cynicism of a Chris Nolen flick or a Nick
Cave narrative. Pondering a train derailment where "201
victims were killed," the narrator sits safely at home wondering,
"Was my twin among the dead?/Was my twin expected to live?"
As trumpets and organs haunt the air, the narrator soon reveals
that she's not waiting for an actual twin sibling. Rather, she
is mourning a future lover she's never met. A counterpart to complement
her "slow, dull existence," who may have died before
fate could bring them together. "My Twin" may be a bit
melodramatic; regardless, it stares straight ahead into fears
shared by all and uttered by few.
Fortunately, Miracle Of Five has enough comic relief to
balance out its occasional gloom. On the peculiar and playful
track "Girls," Mandell packs a sarcastic punch as she
pokes fun at an ex-boyfriend who just won't grow up. With biting
humor she asks, "Do you still dream about girls from your
street?/Do you still dream about girls from high school?/Do you
still dream about girls, girls, girls?" The track "Make-Out
King" follows in a similar vein. Here Mandell sings about
some insecure fellow who's always "looking for love to keep
him from dying." Who "drinks like nobody knows where
he's going," dances like "he might tip over," but
still manages to make out with every girl on the block.
From its lovelorn lullabies to its darkest dreams, Miracle
Of Five is one of those rare albums where every single song
is a treat. All twelve tracks have enough catchy jazz hooks to
keep it enjoyable and plenty of insights to keep listeners thinking.
But most impressive is Eleni Mandell's ability to gaze at the
coldest, most ordinary places and still unearth pockets of enchantment,
even miracles. Now that is the mark of a promising songwriter.
1. Moonglow, Lamp Low
3. My Twin
4. Salt Truch
5. Wings In His Eyes
6. Make-Out King
7. Miracle Of Five
8. Perfect Stranger
9. Dear Friend
10. Somebody Else
12. Miss Me
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