Eleni Mandell

Miracle of Five

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It's difficult to review any Eleni Mandell album without using the words "torchy" and "chanteuse," and Miracle of Five -- her sixth release -- is no exception. However, this recording was approached uniquely. Producer/keyboardist Andy Kaulkin captured Mandell solo, singing the songs while strumming on her nylon-stringed guitar, overdubbing the rest of the band later. While that might seem a bit artificial for such rootsy, jazz-tinged music, the results justify the means. Mandell sounds relaxed and there is a spaciousness to the material resulting from Kaulkin's ability to add and subtract instruments at will. Mandell's voice has shifted from its once edgy PJ Harvey timbre to a far more luxurious, breathy style, similar to Aimee Mann, especially on the languorous "Salt Truck." This is hushed, melancholy music that remains sparse, even stark, despite the addition of such relatively exotic accompaniment as harp, celeste, clarinet and vibes (from X drummer D.J. Bonebrake). The always impressive Nels Cline is credited with guitars, dobro and "weird sounds." He restrains his typically avant-garde, jazzy excursions to bring unusual tones and textures to the project. Kaulkin applies these instruments with the care and detail-oriented touch of a painter, dabbing them into the recordings to provide color but never letting the few solos steal the spotlight from Mandell's mellifluous voice and sharp lyrics. The words are printed in the booklet which makes it easy to follow along as the singer approaches relationships -- good, bad, stagnating, improving and dissolving -- with a sharp poetic grace fleshed out by the gorgeous music. She finds the nooks and crannies in uncomplicated words, bringing layers of meaning to a deceptively simple lyric such as "Your eyes are the same eyes that you had yesterday, so you know who you once were." Her musings add weight and even intensity to the subtle, muted tunes, making this a perfect addition to her existing catalog and arguably, her finest work yet.

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