Eleni Mandell – I Can See the Future

January 01, 1970

(Yep Roc)




I was a simple record store prole when a lone, slim slipcase
copy of Eleni Mandell’s 1999 debut Wishbone arrived buried in the endless boxes of Millennium and …Baby, One More Time. Initially,
it was the arresting cover – a frisson digital Millennials will never experience – that stopped me short: a photo of a
pretty girl in a knee-length skirt running through library stacks pursued by an
unseen, leave-it-to-the-listener’s-imagination someone.


Of course it was the promise of seduction that seduced, and Mandell’s all-groweds-up look at sexuality and
relationships in her songs that charmed. But back then, the L.A. artist’s formidable lyric conceits
seemed to outpace her songwriting skills. You had the idea that the stories
came as fast as the musical ideas – the sign of an artist still feeling around
for their own voice. PJ Harvey’s simmer and Liz Phair’s snark were there, but
the patron saint of Wishbone (and,
indeed, of the next couple Mandell records) was fellow Los Angelino Tom Waits,
whose noir bar-ballads Mandell overtly coveted.


Mandell has come into her own since those early days, and
released a string of mature records as a country-flavored writer of classic pop.
She can do Patsy Cline lonely, Nancy Sinatra ballsy, or Girl Group summer longing,
but it now reads as her own. Romance is still Mandell’s consuming focus, and
the infinite shades her narratives supply on themes of flirting, passion,
intimacy, fires-cooling disappointment, nostalgia and loneliness point to
love’s endlessly complicated tapestries.


But what’s always made Mandell’s songs stand out is their
honesty. On the gentle, organ-washed shuffle “Too Easy,” she bemoans her
awkwardness, from self-consciousness to body issues. But she also acknowledges the
inevitability of surrender to love’s whims – and occasional rewards — no
matter the difficulties. On tracks like “Now We’re Strangers” – a Girl Group
number with Spanish overtones — and the horn-flecked, Camera Obscura-like “Looking
to Look For,” she laments lost loves, but not in a nostalgic, remember-when
manner. Instead, she concedes that these old lovers are fading from memory and
losing any power to move her at all: “It’s funny how I have to try to see you
in my mind/life can be so unkind now we’re strangers.”


Mandell makes obsession sound sexy and romantic, as she does
on the Roy Orbison-like “Don’t Say No” and the spurned-woman, sax-augmented
soul of “Who You Gonna Dance With.” But the most revealing of all here is “Bun
In the Oven,” which also shows Mandell’s still adept
at a late-night Waitsian waltz. But the cello- and pedal steel-colored ballad
has to be read in the context of the singer’s personal life: rather than
waiting on Mr. Right, Mandell turned to a sperm donor and delivered twins. When
she sings “Got a bun in the oven/but I still need some lovin’,” it takes on a
wheat-from-chaff importance that dwarfs most other scenarios.


As usual, Mandell gets a boost from a band that includes
some of L.A.’s
best hired guns. Greg Liesz’ pedal steel graces many tracks, and Joey Waronker’s
rock-solid beats provide subtle-but-essential foundation throughout. Her duet
with fellow love-song infatuate and husky-voiced Benji Hughes on “Never Have to
Fall In Love Again” is another LP highlight, while the string and horn
arrangements of Bright Eyes’ Nathaniel Walcott lend classic pop sensibility to
“Magic Summertime,” one of the better summer soundtrack songs you’ll hear in
any era.


It all adds up to another cohesive set that plums the same
territory songwriters have spent centuries on, – that Mandell can still rivet
our attention is testament to a great songstress.


Summertime” “I Can See the Future” “I’m Lucky” – JOHN SCHACHT

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