Mandell under the radar no moreLos Angeles hipster and Tom Waits acolyte Eleni Mandell has been writing and singing sultry pop-noir songs for almost a decade now, but it wasn't until 2007's stark, brooding Miracle of Five that she started to receive the acclaim she deserves
. That album ended up on several year-end Best Of lists, including Paste's. Her follow-up, Artificial Fire, should ensure that the radar is firmly fixed on her music for a long time to come—this big, bright blip on the screen is the best pop album I've heard in months.
Mandell has always been a master of conflicted love songs for grown ups, and she writes a double handful here that are as strong as anything in her catalog. She's sensuous and altogether aware that Casanovas sometimes turn out to be creeps. On seductive, woozy slowdance "In the Doorway," she conveys nothing if not a palpable lust, but on "Don't Let It Happen"—an homage to '60s girl groups—she's already written off a would-be suitor as callow and immature. It's the same push and pull she's explored so successfully on previous albums, and she may be the best songwriter on discordant desire and heartache since Joni Mitchell. She's less successful when she gets metaphysical and mystical, as on "God is Love" and "I Love Planet Earth," the only misfires on the album. But the love songs (and lust songs) are fabulous; witty, insightful and full of real-life conundrums that make these pop tunes into something special.
Mandell is also surprisingly rowdy on Artificial Fire, and it's a delightful change. The subdued, minimalist approach of Miracle of Fivegives way here to full-bore rock 'n' roll on several tracks, and the interplay between Mandell and her band is reminiscent of Chrissie Hynde and early Pretenders. "Cracked," the thunderous New Wave closer, sounds like a long-lost track from the Pretenders' debut, and guitarist Jeremy Drake does a credible James Honeyman Scott impression. Drake, in particular, deserves to be singled out for his superb work throughout, tossing off George Harrison jangle on British Invasion rave-up "Bigger Burn"; swinging, cool jazz on "Right Side"; and menacing, jagged lines on "Two Faces" that recall Richard Thompson in full flight.
But Mandell is the focus, and rightfully so. Her smoky alto is a supple instrument, cooing and flirtatious on "Personal," a coming-of-age narrative bursting with sexual tension; slyly clipped and dismissive on "Little Foot," a venomous put-down of a potential rival; and raw and wailing on "Cracked Again." She's a breathtakingly nuanced singer, capable of conveying brash self-assurance and nagging self-doubt in the same song with a voice that's equal parts strutting rock diva and wide-eyed little girl. She's also a very fine writer, piling up idiosyncratic details of lost summer days, the sunlight on gleaming glass buildings, her dad's red Pendleton shirt, and stolen kisses outside the neighborhood pizza parlor. The only time it doesn't work is when she tries to make bigger statements—as on those metaphysical songs—and loses the strength of her personal narrative.
But this is a minor quibble. The basic ingredients here—a sexy, intelligent singer and songwriter, a guy who wants to be a guitar god and a drummer who socks the hell out of his kit—come fairly close to defining my notion of perfect music. Together they make a triple-layer torch-song/New Wave/power-pop confection. This is how it's done.
Listen to Eleni Mandell on her MySpace page.