Eleni Mandell, I Can See the Future. For some, maybe the eighth time is the charm. Singer Eleni Mandell has been recording albums for a decade, twisting and turning her way through modern music like a stealth chanteuse. Just when it seemed like she'd found a style to settle on, Mandell would often strike out for new vistas and sounds. She has enough talent as a singer and songwriter to always land somewhere strong, and it seemed like each new release would bring a large and adoring audience. But growth was slow and there were no doubt times when her dedication must have been tested. Now, in 2012, all those challenges appear to have been worth it, because I Can See the Future gathers all her many strengths and lets the woman shine so bright the future just might require shades.
There is a rich sophistication to these songs, yet at the same time there's not a trace of stuffiness or overreach to be found anywhere. Producer Joe Chiccarelli uses a subtle hand behind the players, and whether swelling strings or sensuous saxophones and trumpets are heard, the arrangements by Bright Eyes' Nathaniel Walcott blend the past and future into something that sounds only like Eleni Mandell. Sometimes it might be hard to tell what year we're in, but that's about as high a compliment as could be made about new music these days.
Mandell is also a member of the group the Living Sisters with Inara George and Becky Stark, and those singing siblings lend a hand here to fine effect. By the end of the 13 songs, there's a slightly dazed rush that takes over, a feeling that wonders could what was just heard really be that good? Originals like "Magic Summertime," "Never Have to Fall in Love Again," "Looking to Look For" and "Don't Say No" might be the very best songs this year, and surely the last track, "A Possibility" is one that will live forever. Lucky 8 for this proud Californian? Bet on it.
IT!! Sometimes it's all about the mystery, and when an album like IT!! shows up there are bound to be a few questions. Luckily, there's enough info to find out that the release is 12 songs by Johnny Angel. Or is it Johnny Wendell? Or is it Johnny Carmen? Well, it looks like this is one of those three-mints-in-one situations, and all three are actually one and the same person. For the detectives among us, Angel etc. is a once card-carrying member of the Boston band the Swinging Erudites, which ran roughshod over that city during the '80s, and were likely banned in Boston ever since. Angel lit enough fuses there to make a move west and has called Los Angeles home ever since.
In different guises he's been a liberal talk radio provocateur and crusading journalist, but underneath those esteemed professions his rock and roll heart never quit beating. Or better make that his country-rock heart, because on IT!! the twang factor has been turned up high, with plenty of steel guitar, fiddles and mandolins thrown in to make it seem like L.A. is really just a southern suburb of Bakersfield. There are a few insta-classics lurking within too, like "Crazy Eyes," "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" and "She's Someone Else's Someone Now," calling to mind the heyday of the '70s when Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show ruled the charts. In fact, Johnny Angel-whatever could be the new Shel Silverstein in waiting when it comes to songwriting, high praise indeed, but the irony and ecstasy are right there.
Before things start sounding a little country-fried, though, a quick visit to "September in New England" brings Johnny Angel all the way back to his roots in the oldest part of America. That it's dedicated to his late father Daniel Carmen shows the son to be a sentimental sort who shows no shame about it. That's good, too, because Johnny Angel's voice captures that cross between ache and pride that lies at the center of greatness, and points to the promise this won't be the last we hear from this man, no matter what his name is.
Ken Levine, The Me Generation...by Me (Growing Up in the '60s). Adolescent memoirs aren't always too compelling, and even though this one might look like it falls in that category, guess again. Ken Levine's early years don't hold any kind of roller coaster high points, but it's exactly that near-normalness that makes his autobiography a small revelation. That, and the fact Levine was one funny kid, no matter if all he was doing was daydreaming lustful thoughts about his mother's friends. In fact, more than half the book tells of the romantic efforts of a boy trying to figure out how to become a man. Without spoiling the story, it's safe to assume he finally gets there.
What starts as a totally ho-hum existence in Woodland Hills, California during the volatile 1960s in Levine's hands becomes a hilarious rite of passage that never becomes boring. Whether it's family trips to San Franciso, high school nerdathons or just plain old boyhood jobs, the writer has an eye for the bullseye, and always hits it. Who else could make cruising the streets of suburbia become this funny, or describe in endless detail his dating life (such as it was) and turn that into high drama? It's called humor, and no wonder Levine went on to write for TV shows like Cheers and even script a movie or two. From the start, he makes even the simplest delight a childhood highlight.
If Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show often seemed like phony baloney Hollywood malarkey, read The Me Generation...By Me immediately. All the hopes and tears of growing up in the American middle class as the country woke up from its '50s slumber and threatened to turn upside-down is given a new polish until we realize kids will be kids no matter what, yearning for kicks even if it's just a vanilla shake on New Year's Eve when the '60s actually ended. The boy made it through, and lived to write about it and make us laugh.