I saw Leslie Mendelson a few years ago at a now-defunct Brooklyn bar, when she was just another singer-songwriter making the rounds of the New York clubs. I was impressed then; now, with her debut on Rykodisc, she emerges as an inheritor of the grown-up troubadour tradition of Carly Simon and Carole King.
These vinyl-era influences are clear in the hummable melodies and thrumming keyboards of the first two tracks, the smooth and stately “I Know You Better Than That” and the brightly piercing “So Far So Bad.” The gentle ballad “Rest of London” follows, bringing a slightly more modern sensibility with its ambiguous lyrical conceit; nevertheless the song and arrangement remind me more of Leon Russell’s classic original recording of “Song For You” than of anything current.
Vocally, Mendelson has a softer timbre than her 1970s predecessors, with more of the subtle expressivity of Kim Richey than the rich depth of Carly Simon. In fact, the next track, “I See Myself With You”, could almost be a Richey tune, except that the lyrics don’t quite reach that epitome of pithy pointedness that mark the greatest pop songwriters; the same is true of the acoustic ballad “If I Don’t Stop Loving You,” which marries a gorgeous little melody to lyrics that strike me as just a bit too cliched.
The mid-tempo “Easy Love” has a plainspoken, Eagles-like chorus dense with harmonies, while the bouncy “Hit the Spot” alternates jazz-pop verses with Motown-like choruses. In spite of the stylistic variety, however, by the midpoint of the 11-song disc I found myself getting a little bored. It’s partly that the best songs are on the first half, but also partly that the whole endeavor — well-constructed songs, gently flowing but icily perfect arrangements, and carefully controlled singing — has a cautious feel to it, as if Mendelson and her co-writers didn’t want to offend even one potential listener.
Individually, though, each song has a lot of strengths. And who listens to albums straight through nowadays, anyway? In the download era, it’s a new Age of the Single … but only sort of. A lot has changed in the way music is “consumed” these days. Though there are any number of tracks here that could have been singles in the old days, it’ll be interesting to see how this sweet, old-fashioned thing flies.