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Music Reviews

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Eleni Mandell
Miracle of Five

Rating: 9/10 ?

February 6, 2007
On the cover of Eleni Mandell's latest, Miracle of Five, a hand extends from above with cradling care. A heart-shape has been cut from the palm, and the organ has fallen to the floor. A tiny pair of scissors wait below in solitude, ready to snip.

Such imagery portrays Mandell's intentions well - she wants love, true love, so badly that perhaps the only way to find it is to cut it from herself. With Miracle of Five Mandell holds herself out, gaping wound and all, with all the pain and sweetness inherent in it. And just in time for Valentine's Day.

Miracle is, in general, a lovesick album, but it manages to be so in a way that is not overly cliché. Mandell balances sweet and bitter with admirable dexterity, and what she ends up with lyrically and vocally is something akin to a cross between PJ Harvey and Norah Jones. Musically, Miracle reflects a keen understanding and appreciation for jazz, Americana, country, blues, gospel and contemporary interpretations of such, particularly those of Tom Waits' eclectic, oft-eccentric and rather carnivalesque bent.

However, with Miracle, her sixth album, Mandell departs from her own eccentricity a bit, instead venturing out across the varied terrain of tradition, using her soprano to generally sweet and smooth effect. On occasion she still strains it or dips into deep, throaty calls, and the variations in her voice provide refreshing flourishes rather than distractions. By way of innovative twists in lyric, melody and rhythm that contour an enchanted album of sweet, seductive, and delightfully cynical tones, Mandell develops a musical scene coloured with a sense of conflict and resolve, as opposed to an overdose of one or the other.

The album's first, saxophone-laced song, "Moonglow, Lamp Low," impresses a golden glaze on the mind, with lyrics and a melody so sugar-sweet-dreamy that they verge on doubling over with lovesickness. Mandell's silky smooth voice sings of her desire for true love - just like honey in her tea, just like sugar in her coffee - and the album's mood is set; life is bitter, and love, of course, is sweet. Her musical and lyrical tendencies towards a both saccharine and sinister view communicate this well. The cabaret vibe and vocal turns contained within hearken all the way back to "Midnight Lullaby," from Waits' first release, Closing Time.

Rhythmically and melodically, "My Twin," the album's third song, is the most satisfying of the bunch, punctuated by brass and organ-tinged-keyboards. Mandell's voice is sedate and the narrative visually enticing, be they the portrayal of a derailing train or an insatiable ocean. The world appears lost and yet Mandell stays grounded, "here at home," singing, "my twins out there and he's looking for me, sharp and quick he'll compliment my slow, dull existence."

"Salt Truck" is Mandell's sweet and simple side, distilling her desires down to an icy road and the quell, a salt truck; "I want roads I can drive on, I want a love I can rely on," she sings, before gracing us with "Wings in His Eyes," a warm waltz.

Throughout the album's course Mandell dips into the sugar bowl quite a bit, but turns it around with "Beautiful," a brilliant number where her voice is low-down grainy and, auspiciously, rather un-beautiful. It melds with understated drums and accompanying "weird sounds" contributed by Nels Cline (Wilco) to create a fine tune that would best compliment the scene of a seedy character hobbling down a dark alley, or perhaps the writings of Raymond Carver.

By the time "Miss Me" closes out Miracle of Five, with its simple guitar and jazzy, ragtimey piano bolstered by sexy saxophone and Mandell softly crooning, "miss me, miss me," you may just miss her. But there's no need to fret, for the sophisticated sounds of this songstress stand up to repeated listening. In fact, Miracle may require it.

Reviewed by Sara Williams
Sara Williams writes and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her life revolves around music, which she plays, listens to, thinks in, writes of and is absorbed by. She has a degree in creative writing from UC Santa Cruz, a school in a lovely little town between the forest and the sea. She argues a mean leftist politics with a sweet but sharp tongue and is happy to be lost at sea searching for an Octopus’s Garden in the shade.

See other reviews by Sara Williams



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