“Once” is the first full length album from Mandolyn Mae, and it is a bit of a mixed bag. Before being given this album to review, I had never heard of Mandolyn Mae. For all I knew it could have been a band of mandolin’s covering Mae songs. I was going in blind but ready to take the trip. The first time I listened to the album all the way through it was while driving home from work in the rain. Admittedly I wasn’t paying too close of attention to any of the lyrics and was purely interested in how it sounded. If I were to base this review off that one half-assed listen, it likely wouldn’t be a kind one. That being said, even during my completely surface listen I found myself humming along or repeating a chorus out loud.
Due diligence. I always try to give an album several tries and really truly listen, and when I did for this one I found that my opinion was beginning to change. The voice of Mandolyn Mae is really strong and has a very sweet and soft sound. She is also a really solid songwriter. I have a soft spot for songs about love and heartbreak, and you’ll get a healthy dose of both from the songs on this album. Where the album misses, however, is that it seems like a disjointed collection of songs that just feels like it has something missing.
When the first song on the album, “Here We Are”, begins playing I’m instantly taken back to 2002 and envision Vanessa Carlton. Not a bad thing as “A Thousand Miles” was a huge hit for Carlton. It doesn’t take much to imagine hearing this song or many of the others on the album. The next song could, “On and On”, could potentially be on that list, if it wasn’t for the strange choice of vocal distortion. I don’t fully understand why someone with a voice like this would hide it behind distortion. The song itself is sweet as can be and feels like it is one that could be a hit if it wasn’t for the distracting vocals.
Track three has me thinking Vanessa Carlton again. “Hurricane” is a great song and the piano and string combination really makes the song, in my opinion. Much like the distortion on the previous track, this song could be even better without the unneeded drum machine.
Thankfully “Drive All Night” sticks to the simplistic acoustic approach. This song is as barebones as you can get and really makes it stick out on this album, in a good way. This track doesn’t distract from her beautiful voice or songwriting, instead it amplifies it.
“Adrenaline” takes us back to the piano and kicks you square in the face with pure pop. This song may be the most complete one on the entire album. It just works. It is hard not to want to dance and sing along to it. If I were to nitpick, my only complaint would be that at 2 minutes and 30 seconds, I was left wanting more. With “Hello Hurricane” I feel I get more of what I enjoyed of “Drive All Night”, simple song construction that really lets Mandolyn Mae shine.
“Tonight” finally manages to merge the sounds of all previous songs in a way that works. It’s a darker yet still catchy and poppy song with strong piano and I feel like the drum machine works in nicely. That being said, it feels like something is missing that would really put it over the top. Mandolyn Mae follows it up with another catchy tune in “Just a Little Bit”. This may sound like a strange comparison, but it the song sounds like a mash of Colbie Caillat, old Never Shout Never, with just a pinch of Relient K. I’ll give you a minute to wrap your head around that.
“For the Girls” could easily be a huge girl anthem hit if it had a bit more power behind it. The only instrument involved in the song is a ukulele that is so soft that it gets lost in the song, making it sound more like an acapella. It has the potential to be an extremely catchy song, but it just falls short.
I’m going to give “The Only Person” its own paragraph here. Take my complaint from “On and On” and turn it up to 11. The vocal distortion is so distractingly bad that I can’t tune it out and simply listen to the lyrics and composition. The vocals are distorted up until the very end of the song, where they are cut and she repeats a line in her own natural voice, showing just how well done this song could have been.
Ultimately I feel that this album had the potential to be truly great, but lacked direction. Some songs worked, some missed because they had too much going on, and others missed because there wasn’t enough. All of that said, Mandolyn Mae writes the kind of songs that I enjoy listening to. I enjoy lyrics with substance and not just cleverly worded rhymes that can help sell albums. Take the musical imperfections of early Bright Eyes, with the ability to put emotion to paper like Chris Carraba, and add in the vocals of someone like Jenny Lewis and you still have something worth listening to. To me, that is what this album is. Despite it all the beauty and heart is there.
Release Date: June 25th, 2013
1. Here We Are
2. On and On
4. Drive All Night
6. Hello Hurricane
8. Just a Little Bit
9. For the Girls
10. The Only Person
Written By: Mark Northern