Below is a collection of phrases used by reviewers to describe Eleni Mandell and her music:
“quirky Los Angeles torch singer” New Yorker, 3-5-09
“exudes a nocturnal, beat-poet, wry, avant-garde veneer” – AllMusic, 2002
“mellifluous chanteuse voice” – American Songwriter, 1-30-14
“BEST ROCK/POP SONGWRITER/COMPOSER [tie]: Eleni Mandell, Elliott Smith” – LA Weekly Music Awards, 2003
“Pinning one label onto Eleni is not easy and would not really help anyone.” – Exclaim.ca, 2-28-01
Her first record, 1998’s Wishbone, was produced by Jon Brion and Brian Kehew, before Fiona Apple priced them out of the indie market. It may wear Mandell’s Tom Waits influence most heavily, with its weird tunings and unusual instrumentations—“Nickel-Plated Man” sounds like two hipsters lurching through a scrap-metal yard. This record also showed off Mandell’s torch-singer chops, with tracks like “To Dream of Sarah,” and inaugurated her regular Silver Lake neighborhood shout-outs (“Normandie”). My favorite song is “Tristeza,” a melancholy race through the rites of passage established for a young girl’s life before she even has a chance to object.
Her follow-up album, Thrill, is to my ears better than her initial effort: the music’s previously weird protrusions have been sanded down to merely odd bumps, while still accentuating the intimate sultriness of her voice and lyrics. “Taking You Out” suggestively imagines a revenge involving “stiletto heels and pinking shears”; on “Action is Action,” she works at enticing a man to stop overthinking things and fuck her good. But the standout track is “Pauline,” where the singer revels in seducing another woman’s lover.
Mandell rounded out her early-career triptych with 2002’s Snakebite, which took her evocative vocals up a notch in one of two ways: by pairing them with a driving beat (“Pirate Song”; the title track) or by stripping down to a barely noticeable rhythm section (“Christine,” or the languid “Dreamboat”). She also let a few unpolished tracks stay as-is rather than spending too much time trying to make them something they’re not. The cryptic “Digging a Hole,” for example, is barely two minutes long and almost stretches Mandell’s alto too far when she shoots for the higher octaves. It’s a strange little gem.
After Snakebite, Mandell did what any songstress would do: cut an alt-country album(?). Country for True Lovers shows her channeling her inner Patsy Cline, an influence she’s always kept just beneath the surface. More relaxing than challenging, it’s got a few nice tracks on it, like the Bob Dylan cover “Kingsport Town” and Mandell’s original “Iowa City.”
This actually marks the beginning of what I’m calling Mandell’s exploratory era, which found her dabbling in jazz, French pop, and marketable work-for-hire: she’s the one who covered Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” for the notorious Carl’s Jr. commercial in which a swimsuit-clad Paris Hilton hand-washes a Rolls Royce in a garish attempt at sexiness. Around this time, Mandell also formed her first side project, The Grabs, with Silversun Pickups’ Elvira Gonzalez and Blondie’s Nigel Harrison.
This experimentation lasted about five years and included 2004’s Afternoon, foreshadowing Mandell’s current era, in which she has left behind her noirish roots and mostly plays a folky-country songstress. Just about any of her songs in this style make the perfect soundtrack for your backyard porch on a late-summer afternoon, music crackling out of a battery-powered radio as you sit, lemonade in hand, watching early-bird fireflies snap on and off in the distance.
She still reactivates her smoky, midnight lounge singer persona on occasion, such as the breathy death-wish “My Twin,” from 2007’s Miracle of Five.
I have to jump in here and say this is where I stopped listening to Eleni Mandell. Up until now, her clearly personal songs were about things I could relate to as a 20-something: bad relationships, one-night stands, the desire to hurt someone who hurt you, and even being the other woman. (While I’m not a woman, “Pauline” is a great song.) But as Mandell grew older, her life changed, and her music reflected that. She stopped writing songs with quick tempos and almost frighteningly sexual lyrics, and focused on laid-back music that showcases her breathy voice and gentle guitar strumming. Even her upbeat songs from this time are peppy little ditties, better suited for a merry-go-round than a motorcycle. In what now seems inevitable, she wrote a song called “Bun in the Oven” and put her (admittedly adorable) toddlers in the video.
Is it really fair to say I’m less enamored with her new stuff because she’s changed? Of course she’s going to grow as a person over an almost 20-year career. She’s admitted it herself, telling interviewers how her outlook improved after giving birth to twins in 2011. And think of how her fans changed over the same time period. I was a jobless single dude with angst to spare when I bought my first Eleni Mandell CD; I’m a necktie-wearing dad with a mortgage and an SUV today. I still like her music sketchy rather than cozy, but apparently she thinks otherwise.
There’s a line we don’t want musicians to cross when they mature and develop as artists. And it’s not just “don’t sing about your kids,” because how many Grammys and moon men did Eric Clapton pick up for “Tears in Heaven”? What constitutes changing too much is different for every artist. I can fathom a world where Emmylou Harris croons, “As I turn back the years/So little I’ve learned/About heartache and tears,” but not one where James Hetfield sings about crying at his daughter’s wedding.
Perhaps Great Pop Things can explain it better than I:
Anyway, out of dedication to the Artist Spotlight oeuvre, I went back and listened to Mandell’s four most recent records, which I had not heard before. Artificial Fire (2009) starts with more of a rock sound than she has ever embraced, complete with electric guitar, overdubbed vocals, and back-beat drumming, then settles into the occasionally oddball arrangement of standard Eleni Mandell material. I Can See The Future, from 2012, incorporates pristine engineering, an airbrushed cover photo, and a string section, which, along with toning down the country twang, gives the whole thing an ethereal sheen.
I found mostly slow and easy songs on 2013’s Let’s Fly A Kite, but don’t be deceived. “Anyone Like You” is an ostensibly smiley crooner that grapples with loving a sometimes toxic person, while “Midnight Hauler,” is about a venomous trucker who’s “soft like a kitten” at home with his woman. Her latest record, Dark Lights Up, flows through the same vein, though not without self-reflection. The lyrics to “Town Called Heartache” could almost be a rejoinder to my criticism that Mandell has gone soft:
There’s a town called Heartache
In the state of Misery
I used to live there all year round
Now I’m just passing through
Wonder what you’ve been up to
Is it still such a thrill
Before you start to fall down?
I’ll leave you with “Magic Pair of Shoes” off Dark Lights Up. This chameleon of a song confounds with its musical heritage: it’s equal parts “Ain’t Misbehavin”-type 1920s jazz standard, Roger Miller-era Nashville piano ballad, and early Burt Bacharach. In real life, Mandell says she’s moved beyond wishing for a storybook ending, but this wistful song has it both ways, hinting at a romantic dream while knowing full well that’s as realistic as a unicorn or a magic pair of shoes.