If you haven’t heard of Eleni Mandell, that’s alright—I’m willing to bet that at least one in your close circle of friends is a huge fan; I’m sure they’d be happy to share. An old roommate of mine once held Country for True Lovers out to me as if passing on a sacred text. Mandell’s jazz-tinged, understated folk-pop, steeped in tradition and carefully honed craft, may not be as hyped as Norah Jones’s or as quirky as Jolie Holland’s, but it does inspired its own deserved, ardent fandom. Miracle of Five, her sixth record in just over seven years, is another solid outing perhaps destined once again for the hearts of quiet dreamers. Not gratuitous or showy enough for the mainstream, not freaky enough to turn indie-rock ears, Miracle of Five happily occupies the middle ground exemplified by creative, crafty tunes with just enough polish so as not to offend.
Produced and recorded by keyboardist Andy Kaulkin, the record is snug and intimate, partly the result of Mandell’s voice and nylon string guitar being put down first, with the other musicians overdubbing their parts later. Wooden percussion clanks and echoes in the near distance on “Beautiful” while reeds and jazz-guitar wind and curl around each other. Mandell sings close to the mic, as if over your shoulder, “You’re walking by the local dive/ And everyone asks who you are/ Motorcars go racing by/ Glancing in their rear view mirrors / ... Today you’re beautiful.” The song is appropriately sultry, mysterious, the right combination of Mandell’s strengths—classic, torchy jazz and knowing, sure-footed lyrics.
“Girls” is even better, a candy-sweet waltz, a gentle tease, an aching crush, brimming with confidence yet still betraying the barest hint of insecurity. The central conceit is a series of playful questions to a prospective lover, such as “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.” These lines alternate with private daydreams, “I wonder how you feel when you kiss/ I wonder how soft are your lips”, over playfully strummed guitar and glassy vibes. Although she later boasts, “I’ll make you money whenever you’re gambling/ ... I am the pennies that come in handy,” all the questions about girls create the suspicion that Mandell is wary of being had, of competing not even with real girls, but remembered girls. Unless I’m imagining it, it’s a subtle twist on a legacy of jealous songs, blended seamlessly into an “I’ve got a crush on you” song. Similarly, “Make-Out King” grafts sly sexual politics and commentary onto another unsuspecting pop waltz. “I can’t be seen/ Kissing the make-out king/ I know that they’ll all be saying/ She’s gone crazy/ ... The make-out king is in my bed.”
The best moments on Miracle of Five are these: where Mandell’s incisive wit wins out over convention. It doesn’t always prevail, however. The opener, “Moonglow, Lamp Low”, though lovely and serviceable in all other respects, doesn’t ring with the same freshness and originality as other tunes on the record, falling back on such safe, coffeehouse imagery as rainbows, sweet dreams, true love, and well, coffee. The song demonstrates an underlying issue with the whole album: that it’s constantly pulled in two directions at once. One is to satisfy the demands of a love for classic styles of yesteryear; the other to put her own distinguishing stamp on them. Mandell strikes a fine balance between homage and evolution on most of the record, from the spacey shuffle of “Salt Truck” to the gentle twang of “Dear Friend”. After all, tension is fine fuel for creativity. But while Miracle of Five is plenty warm and beguiling, I suspect the best is still yet to come.