A great singer-songwriter finally gets signed to a bigger label, and delivers a superb record.
Eleni Mandell has always been a beacon of artistic integrity. It would have been easy for her to sell out long ago, with her stunning voice and songwriting chops, but she walks her own path, penning lyrics that are just a bit too biting and/or clever, and holding back just a smidgen when a lesser talent would attempt to blow the roof off the joint. Very inspirational indeed -- and maybe a little crazy.
Now, for her eighth album, she's gone and signed with Yep Roc -- not the biggest label, but the largest she's ever signed with. This is a step up, so this new record has a lot riding on it. I'm glad to report that she approaches her craft in the same off-center, off-kilter way she's always done.
A wail of high lonesome feedback, a plucked guitar, and we're off into "The Future". It takes a little while to figure out this spooky and atmospheric tune. She's on a solo road trip, getting away from her past by traveling north to "the old Hotel Arcada", and then the verses always slow down so she can croon "I can see the future," without actually telling us what that future is that she's seen, what she plans to do and why, or anything else. It's a frustrating and ambiguous and perfect artistic choice, and very Eleni Mandell.
More songs like this come up throughout the record. "Desert Song" is about as desolately lovely a folk song as one might expect a song called "Desert Song" might be: "I'll never forget the way that you smiled / The sky turned purple, the winds went wild / I believe in miracles sometimes." She barely sings at first, quiet and hesitant like she can't let herself believe that she's really truly left her troubles behind -- but when she starts to open it up, you remember just how powerful her voice can be.
Not everything here is stark and challenging. "Magic Summertime" is beautifully straightforward, just a song about that summer feeling and how it helps you break down your inner walls. "Bun in the Oven" is a hilarious song of desire sung by a pregnant woman with no one else in the picture. "Who You Gonna Dance With" and "Never Have to Fall in Love Again" share a certain relief at having finally found someone who doesn't suck. So there's happy stuff everywhere here! Yay!
There are a lot of tracks here hearkening back to early 1960s pop -- so much Farfisa! -- or mid-century country weepers. This usually works, but sometimes, like in "Looking to Look For", the cool sounds jostle with Mandell's actual subject matter. And it's hard to have so much naked longing just sitting out there; the intense album closer, "A Possibility", with its strings and its mariachi suggestions and the swelling chorus at the end, is pretty hard to listen to more than once or twice. After all, a guy can't walk around in a puddle of emotion ALL the time.
But if you are made of stronger stuff than this reviewer, and you can stand up to intelligent songs sung beautifully without dissolving, then this might be your summer jam.