Eleni Mandell
"Miracle of Five"

(Zedtone 2007)Eleni Mandell - Miracle of Five

As far as I can tell, the last year has been fairly kind to Eleni Mandell. Last summer she sang the old Cole Porter tune, "I Love Paris," in a Carl's Jr. commercial featuring last year's party girl Paris Hilton. A couple of months ago she was 16 across in a New York Times crossword puzzle, a true indicator of obscure -- but culturally significant -- success. At the moment she's touring Europe, where audiences probably have a greater appreciation for her traditional pop leanings than here in the states.

But if we are to believe her songs, all this good fortune is secondary to Ms. Mandell. "Miracle of Five" leaves the strong impression that true love is her primary preoccupation. The cover -- predominantly red and emblazoned with a hand that has a heart cut out of the middle of it -- looks like a valentine from a despondent art school girl to the unrequited love of her life. The music inside this valentine is exactly what you'd expect: sweet, lonesome, and yearning to the bitter end.

"Miracle of Five" is one of those records that is better than the sum of its parts. There are no great tracks, no transcendent moments. But there is stylistic cohesion due primarily to masterful production and arrangements. Electric guitars, saxophones, keys, bass, drums, and a myriad of other instruments are all carefully laid underneath Eleni's fragile guitar and vocals. The mood also stays consistent, never straying from an underlying solitude even during the record's relatively sunny moments.

"Moonglow, Lamp Low," the first track, is one such moment. Dreaming of "true love just like sugar in my coffee," the song envisions a blissful, perfect love affair. The vocal and the minimal arrangement have an airy sultriness that conveys the song's wishful yet lonesome quality. The third track, "My Twin," is, well, the evil twin of "Moonglow." A minor-key dirge, "My Twin" follows the imagined perils of the singer's ideal love ("We've never met but I believe/My twin's out there and he's looking for me"). He's visualized to be among the dead in a train wreck, a plane wreck, a ship wreck, and a fire; clearly he'll have to be heroic and lucky to make his way to her. Yet the singer holds out hope that he will find her and complement her "slow, dull existence."

These are two of the standouts tracks. Most of the other songs are of only slightly lesser quality, with the one possible exception being the fourth track, "Salt Truck." I think Mandell tried to get too cute with metaphor on this one. She likens snow-covered roads to a blocked path in her love life; the salt truck is what she asks for to clear the way. With the cutesy metaphor and the minimal folkie/countrypolitan arrangement (with cello!), it would be perfect for a yet-to-be-made, similarly cutesy indie film. You've probably seen a hundred movies like this: There's a guy who lives out in South Dakota some place; he's in his mid-twenties; he dropped out of college and works at a gas station; he has vague intellectual pretensions, a quirky personality, and no plans for the future; it's the dead of winter; he meets a cute girl, they click, but guess what -- she's stuck in a burnt-out five-year relationship with the franchise owner. In the next year at least 10 movies will be made with similar plot lines, and this song will end up in one of them.

Tangential derision aside, this is a perfectly fine record. Combining Tin Pan Alley-influenced songwriting with more up-to-date influences such as Tom Waits and Gillian Welch is a good formula to win my appreciation. And the production and mix couldn't be better. But these songs never take off and soar. There is too much restraint and craft here; there is so much emotion in the words, but it never fully realizes itself in the music.

B

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