"You're my dear friend, where are you now? Aren't you worried how I am?" sings Eleni Mandell on one of the best tracks of her new album, Miracle of Five. You might read the line as a career statement. After all, in spite of six years and six albums of rave reviews, accolades from fellow musicians, and an all-star L.A. backup band (picked from the likes of X, Wilco, and Tom Waits), this singer-songwriter remains a secret indie jewel.
It would, nonetheless, be a misreading. For while Mandell shuffles through American musical genres languidly, she is no ironist. When she sings a country-western song or a jazz number, there's no wink. This lack of armor makes her sound as vulnerable as the last woman on earth.
Miracle of Five builds an utterly captivating, California world of simmering romance, hot nights, and desert winds. The album's primary instrument is Mandell's voice, which is sultry but catches sometimes in a way that sounds like a little kid playing at sultry. This album deserves a wide audience. Then again, when I hear Mandell's hushed voice whispering into my earbuds, I hope she stays my own little secret.
-- Joseph Hart
Woody Guthrie is dead, Bob Dylan rejected the "protest music" tag decades ago, and Billy Bragg's songwriting has gotten soft around the edges. So who's left to play the union rallies and street protests? Tom Morello, a.k.a. the Nightwatchman, that's who. The innovative axman for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, it turns out, has a soft spot for "heavy acoustic" music, and his combination of socialist politics and string-abusing strums is a potent mix. Whether he's painting an apocalyptic portrait of the not-too-distant future ("California's Dark"), packing a powder keg for battle ("One Man Revolution"), or belting out picket-line anthems ("Union Song"), Morello seizes on the "anger is an energy" ethos of punk rock and lands blow after thudding blow for the little guy.
-- Keith Goetzman
(Strange Attractors Audio House)
Virtuosic acoustic guitarists often can't help themselves: They tend to put flash ahead of feeling, and their perfectly executed playing ends up being perfectly lifeless. There's no such problem with Glenn Jones, an incredibly adept fingerstyle guitarist whose technique always remains in service of the song, whether it's the tense beauty of "David and the Phoenix," the bent-note splendor of "Richard Nixon Orchid," or the gently rambling joy of "Little Dog's Day." Jones was a friend of the late, legendary guitarist John Fahey and is a fellow member of the Takoma school of playing, in which traditional folk forms serve as jumping-off points for freethinking improvisation. His vigorous leaps are daring but never reckless, and nearly always sublime.
-- Keith Goetzman
Considering the role that black slaves and their descendents have played in charting North American folk music, it's a shame that so few African Americans are center stage in the current roots/Americana revival. The Montreal-born Allison Russell, cofounder of the band Po' Girl, is a delightful exception. With a devastating voice (and a mean clarinet), she steals the show on Home to You, the band's third album. The group makes a shuffling, hazy-lazy music, like a warm summer rain. And while Po' Girl lives somewhere between front-porch folk and Tin Pan Alley, there's also a cool, contemporary sophistication to their music. The front porch they're pickin' on, after all, is in modern Vancouver.
-- Joseph Hart
M'bem di Fora expands the back-to-the-roots aesthetic of Lura's 2004 disc, Di Korpu Ku Alma, offering up a stylistic porridge of Creole, African, Latin, and Western-pop influences and sealing the 31-year-old singer's place as the heir to Cesaria Evora, the musical matriarch of Cape Verde. Although Lura's parents left the
10-island archipelago west of Senegal before she was born, she has immersed herself in its musical landscape. More free-ranging than the stately Evora, Lura revels in the jubilant melody of "Festa Di Nha Kumpadri," gracefully prances through the dipthong-heavy lyrics and sharp beats of "Galanton" like a stone skimmed over a pond, and wends her voluptuous voice alongside the lilting rhythms of "No Bem Fala." Only the brooding "As Agua," about the wait for rain in a dry August, disrupts a dozen musically diverse declarations of joy.
-- Britt Robson