Grand Entrance

Jul 28, 1999 at 12:00 am

Truly great debut albums from important young artists are relatively rare. The Doors made one. Bob Dylan didn’t. And when a debut is independently released, cheap production values can make things worse. Often, songs flow unevenly together, track sequencing is poor and the record runs needlessly long – even when the artist has great material. ("Oh the record is good, but you really have to see ’em live.") But uniquely talented Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell has cleared this freshman hurdle with style and grace. Her debut album, Wishbone – which Mandell released herself on her own Mr. Charles label – is a dark, stylistic jaw-dropper, with songcraft that shows a maturity belying Mandell’s relative inexperience and youth. Check out these lyrics from Mandell’s passionate ode to infidelity, "Meant to Be in Love": "I know my husband cares for me/I know my darling does/But when I bear his son/He’ll look like you because/We were meant to be in love." Clearly, Mandell is no amateur. However, its in the production and presentation – creatively channeled by producers Brian Kehew (Moog Cookbook) and Jon Brion (Rufus Wainwright) – where this stuff really begins to reach high altitude. Walkie-talkies growl, Chamberlain and Optigan keyboards spit, and Mandell purrs like a damaged but proud torch singer in an elegant but torn dress. And despite the album’s stylistic reach – sparse urban fado flows into punky stomp and back again – there’s an overall consistency of tone that lifts Wishbone up and holds it all together. One can only assume that a record like this is not a fluke; we’ll be hearing more of Eleni Mandell. An immensely impressive debut.