Even a singer-songwriter with a voice as sweet as Eleni Mandell's has to work a little to get people to listen to a sound they've heard countless times. In Mandell's case, finely shaded lyrics and just-past-midnight mood-setting transform the familiar into the poignant. On "Girls," the second song on Mandell's sixth LP, Miracle Of Five, a fairly routine cabaret piece becomes increasingly tense, as Mandell's casually accusatory line "Do you still dream about girls from high school?" repeats until its cuteness falls away. Elsewhere, Mandell compares city utilities to unreliable lovers in "Salt Truck" and considers the problems with kissing the "Make-Out King." Her songs take on the perspective of a grown woman still wallowing in the torments of adolescent romance. She's getting over her anxieties by whispering them into a microphone on a welcoming nightclub stage.
Anyone listening to Miracle Of Five and Patty Griffin's Children Running Through back-to-back might have trouble telling them apart right away, since Griffin's new album opens with "You'll Remember," a spare torch song every bit as haunting and yearning as one of Mandell's. But then Children jumps to "Stay On The Ride," a more conventionally twangy folk-rocker, wrapped in an R&B cloak. Producer Mike McCarthy prefers a stripped-down, rhythmic sound, which gives songs like "Stay On The Ride" a funky drive that belies their Americana origins. At times, he makes Griffin sound more like Soul Coughing than like Lucinda Williams.
Later, Griffin embraces her country roots on "Trapeze," a ghostly duet with Emmylou Harris that uses circus imagery to explore the thin line between fearlessness and stupidity, and "Getting Ready," an energetic rambler with the unstoppable momentum of a semi truck. But for the most part, Children Running Through is Griffin at her most complete, using elements from her favorite genres to support simple songs that follow the up-sloping contours of her phenomenal voice. In an album of peaks, none reaches higher than "No Bad News," an aggressive acoustic anthem that has Griffin stammering words of hope obsessively over hard strumming, as though performing a campfire exorcism.