Friday, February 09, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: MIRACLE OF MANDELL

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 9, 2007


I think I’ve written before that Eleni Mandell has just about the sexiest voice in showbiz today. Her new album, Miracle of Five, drives home this point. In fact, in my book, the new record shows Mandell to be the Julie London of her generation. She’d do a great “Cry Me a River,” and if London were still alive, I bet she’d be recording sensual songs by Eleni like the jazzy “Beautiful” and the wistful “Girls.”

Mandell’s last couple of solo albums, Afternoon and Country Love Songs, presented a more alt-country sound (especially the latter). Some songs here — most notably “Dear Friend” — retain shadows of twang. Nels Cline, best known for his experimental work and his contributions to Wilco and the Geraldine Fibbers, plays lap steel, dobro, banjo, and other instruments here.

But Miracle of Five is contemporary torch music with subtle touches of noir. The Los Angeles singer makes great background music for reading Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald or even James Ellroy.

Some of the songs — like the opening “Moonglow, Lamp Low” and “Perfect Stranger,” featuring Jeff Turmes’ menacing sax — sound a little like early jazznik Tom Waits records, except that Mandell’s voice is as sultry as Waits’ is raspy. Mandell and Waits have a mutual friend in Chuck E. Weiss, whom Mandell has described as a friend and mentor. (And Mandell did a drop-dead-gorgeous version of Waits’ “Muriel” on a Waits tribute album a few years ago.)

Not only is this a fine showcase for Mandell’s voice, but Miracle of Five contains some of her most memorable songs. The title song, which seems to deal with some type of numerology of the heart, is a lilting tune that features both banjo and vibes (from longtime Mandell collaborator D.J. Bonebrake of X). Maybe it’s because this whole album stimulates my dirty mind, but when Mandell purrs “kiss me every day/The miracle of six,” it sounds like she’s singing “the miracle of sex.”

“Make-Out King,” an atmospheric waltz featuring double-tracked vocals and squiggly electronic noises that complement the melody, is about falling in lust with someone you realize is ultimately no good for you.

“The make-out king/Is in my bed/And I’m so tired I think I’m a junkie/His hair is curly/He drinks like nobody knows where he’s going/And nobody cares what he’s saying.”

Mandell gets mysterious with “My Twin,” a minor-key, bluesy tune featuring a sad horn section and nasty roller-rink organ backing morbid lyrics like, “Why did that train derail?/201 victims killed/Was my twin among the dead?/Was my twin expected to live?”

But I think my favorite here is “Girls,” another one with Bonebrake on vibes. The verses are about a potential new love. “I wonder how you look when you sleep/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?” But on the bridge, she turns on herself: “I am the marble the color of candy/I’ll make you money whenever you’re gambling/I am the dice you roll in the alley/I am the pennies that come in handy.”

In a just world, this album would make Mandell a star. Just world or not, I say the lady’s a contender.

Mini Eleni-thon: Tonight on The Santa Fe Opry I’ll do a 30-minute Eleni Mandell set, including songs from Miracle of Five and several other albums. The show starts at 10 p.m. Sunday, and the Mandell set will start shortly after 11 p.m. on KSFR-FM 90.7. And don’t forget Terrell’s Sound World, same time, same channel, on Sunday night.

Also recommended:
*The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 by PJ Harvey. The CD booklet for this album, released last fall, includes a note from Polly Jean Harvey celebrating John Peel, the late British radio host who, from the psychedelic era until his death in 2004, promoted great music and often broadcast live-in-the-studio performances by artists ranging from Donovan to Dinosaur Jr., Fleetwood Mac to Fugazi.

“John’s opinions mattered to me,” Harvey writes. “More than I would ever care to admit for fear of embarrassment on both sides, but I sought his approval always. It mattered. Every Peel session I did, I did for him.”

I’m sure Peel would have approved of the performances on this album. This is PJ at her bare-bones best. Hearing these ferocious versions of her early tunes like “Oh My Lover,” “Victory,” and “Sheela-Na-Gig” is a vivid reminder of what made me love Harvey in the first place. On these early songs — recorded in 1991, months before the release of her debut album, Dry — she’s backed only by bass and drums.

That’s also the case with her cover of the Willie Dixon classic “Wang Dang Doodle,” one of the highlights of this collection. Harvey doesn’t try to out-Koko Koko Taylor (who does the classic version of the song) here. In fact, she starts out in a high, little-girl voice. But by the chorus, her vocals are just on the verge of a scream. By the song’s end that voice is full of sex and glory.

But the true standout here is a 1996 version of “Snake,” in which Harvey’s only sideman is John Parrish on guitar and keyboards. The first verse has Harvey chanting the lyrics, getting angrier and louder with each word and leading up to a chorus of inhuman howls. Just like the original, it’s less than two minutes long, which probably is a good thing. That type of intensity shouldn’t go on for much longer.

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