From her first album, 1999’s Jon Brion-produced Wishbone, to her fifth, 2004’s Afternoon (after which Los Angeles magazine named her best local singer), L.A.-based singer/songwriter Eleni Mandell has been feeling the love from critics and her fellow musicians, who have freely offered their respective kudos. Impressive, to be sure, but her career to this point is but a tantalizing extended build-up to Mandell’s superb new longplayer, Miracle of Five, which is at once the quintessence and the culmination of her vibrant oeuvre.

From the opening song, the hushed, intimate, “Moonglow, Lamp Low,” to the closing elegiac ballad “Miss Me,” the richly nuanced album maintains its mood and subtle momentum, creating a world of its own. This is without question the young artist’s most coherent album, and her most eloquent, optimistic and beautiful as well. Miracle of Five puts her in a new light, and on a new level of artistic achievement. Hearing her new album is like hearing this captivating artist for the very first time.

Of the dozen original pieces on Miracle of Five, Mandell acknowledges, “In their way, these are the most positive and hopeful songs I’ve written. They’re not so much about bad relationships or unrequited love as about finding love in the future. So that makes me happy. I’ve taken a turn—it’s not so interesting to me to be treated badly anymore.” She punctuates the statement with a self-deprecating laugh, as she often does when entering personal territory. “For me, that’s what stands out the most—that the songs aren’t so self-pitying.”

In order to optimize this crucial undertaking, Mandell assembled a group of talented and supportive players, including Wilco lead guitarist Nels Cline, X drummer DJ Bonebrake (who plays vibes here), her longtime rhythm section of drummer Kevin Fitzgerald and bassist Ryan Feves, reed player Jeff Turmes (James Harman, Badly Drawn Boy) and keyboardist Andy Kaulkin (Merle Haggard, R.L. Burnside), who also produced. Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) did the mixing.

Mandell’s singing on the new album is a revelation; never has her conversational alto sounded more present, or more real. Part of it is due to the unorthodox way her vocals were recorded. Determined to get the absolute optimum vocal performances out of his charge, Kaulkin started with Mandell’s vocals and nylon-string guitar, recorded solo on the basic tracks; the other musicians would overdub their parts afterward, reacting to her finished vocals. “Recording all the songs by myself did really make a difference,” Mandell confirms. “Andy was a little bit hard on me when he felt I wasn’t quite getting it, but it was great working with him, just knowing he was really paying attention.”

The other breakthrough is the songs themselves—songs in which every note and syllable is palpable with meaning “I see Eleni as the missing link between Hoagy Carmichael and Leonard Cohen,” says Kaulkin. “She belongs to an older tradition of American songwriting. And these new songs are amazing—much better than anything she’s ever written before. There’s a line in every song that’s gonna stick with you.”

“When I hear my songs, I definitely hear the classic American songwriter/showtunes influence,” says Mandell. “My mother took me to shows as a kid, and I listened to the soundtracks over and over. Then I became very taken with the songs of Gershwin, Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein as interpreted by Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. That was where my parents’ tastes intersected. My dad turned me on to practically everything else—Hank Williams, the Beatles, Bob Dylan.”

Mandell describes the largely autobiographical songs of Miracle of Five with characteristic candor—she can’t help telling the truth. The opening “Moonglow, Lamp Low,” she explains, “is a simple song about looking for love—again—and also looking out my window, which is where I wrote it, as the sun was going down. I think it sort of sweetly sets the tone of the record.”

“Make-Out King,” she reveals, is about her new boyfriend—“who’s no longer the make-out king,” Mandell says with a schoolgirl giggle. “It was nice to have the hopefulness of the song translated into real life.” She pauses. “It’s always embarrassing to explain my songs because so many of them are kind of literal,” she says. “‘Miracle of Five,’ for example, refers to a person’s fingers. You experience the simplest moment of holding someone’s hand, and you think, ‘Wow, what a miracle, five fingers holding my hand.’ See, it is embarrassing—my temperature just went up. ‘My Twin’ is hopeful, but in a dark way—that somewhere out there is some perfect person for you, but is it possible that he was on his way to meet you, and, as fate would have it, he died in a plane crash?” Another laugh. “There’s a little positivity in there.”

Mandell conjured up the road song "Salt Truck" as she and her bandmates were trying to get from Detroit to New York on the I-80 during a treacherous winter storm. “It was just harrowing,” she remembers, “and any time a salt truck would appear to lay down the salt on the road, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. So it became a kind of metaphor for life and love.”
That’s what happens with these extraordinary new songs—they begin with real-life experiences and blossom into multi-dimensional expressions of the human condition, all of it captured in the caressing yet charged sound of Mandell’s voice. So if you think you know Eleni Mandell, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

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