Lounging away the day, still in the worn-out red-striped pajamas that you slept in last night, the day is long. Having your wake-up calling early this morning: the usual imaginary white fog following you around as you walked into the bathroom customarily, half-asleep, an image of emitted light bulb emerged.
It’s Sunday anyway, have no worries.
[Did you accidentally hang a portrait of a single shiny light bulb in your bathroom’s wall last night? Come on, you were not that crazy.]
Drowning yourself in a couple of fine tunes is definitely handy on a day like this. You begin to think, why you seem to have so much music for Sunday morning. You’ve been re-arranging your CDs in order to match your mood. Since trouble sleeping is not a nightly issue anymore, you’re feeling kind of healthy. With your proud heavy eyelids and some funny taste left in your mouth, you’re struggling to see what’s outside the window, two-hours sleep is enough to say you’re progressing. Big blue sky is mottled in gray. The air is moist. You have no choice but to put on a record. Snuggled under the blanket, clasping the old teddy (if you have one) in arms, you are ready to be amused.
And there she is. Singing away the blues. Glancing at the sleeve, I pondered, who the heck is this? I’ve never heard of Eleni Mandell before, but a good friend of mine told me, quoted from a serious review, that she might be the best unsigned, under-appreciated artist in the business. It’s never too late to try on something new. What do you know about the moody chanteuse anyway? You’ve searched through articles, more or less, nothing interesting, or so you think. Except that she made her own dresses.
Eleni Mandell is one such woman I’d rather not know in person. (Wish granted. She is a talented artist and I’m not). There’s something disturbing about the stylistic domesticity, kooky homemaker confidence that is Ms. Mandell [careful with grease stains], evidently professed in her music, mainly as an overlay, aggressively.
Throughout years, she’s been working with a variety of respectable musicians, including Jon Brion, with whom she produced her debut, Wishbone, Nigel Harrison (Blondie), Elvira Gonzales (Silversun Pickups), and Steve Gregoropolous (Lavender Diamond), with whom she formed The Grabs, a band that eventually expands on Mandell’s style. Mentored by Chuck E. Weiss, the legendary music scenester and is a great musician, palled with the classic punk rockers, X, assembled a group, The Living Sisters, with Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Inara George (The Bird and the Bee), escorted by a number of popular acquaintances, not to mention her ties to Tom Waits, with whom she collaborates, I am amazed at how Eleni Mandell is still working mysteriously under the radar.
Been plunging into a variety of prolific genres from dark and sultry rock to trashy noir jazz, from strident pop to alt-country, from gypsy grind to delta blues, from sunny sugary ensemble to rainy days, Ms. Mandell is not going to go easy on you. Not even on your lazy Sunday morning.
Snakebite is her third full-length album. First there was an introductory Wishbone (1999), followed by the mystifying Thrill (2004), both are distinguishable. Snakebite isn’t quite impressive as her more recent releases. But the beauty resides in her inventive use of dazzling flavor, posing her originality as the centerpiece. Her soul lies down in the green, green grass. You can too partake of the delicate elegance. As if life was so dear, so peaceful, yet sour. Familiarity is a strange thing, a powerful thing.
Names. Scents. Sensations. It’s the same with Ms. Mandell.
The album starts off with a beautiful opener, “Dreamboat”, where she’d take you on a cruise in a seemingly desolated voyage. You can never feel too intimate, though the melody is bewitchingly inviting. Eyes smile in bitterness as you pass through the gate quietly in a stark of black and white, sorrow’s catching on. Hinting on subtle precarious feelings towards a relationship, this one is my favorite. “Are we ocean or sky?” Are we over or staying? Are we for real or not? Shift into a more optimistic ending, “Someday when the mountains escape / swimming for living / we’ll drown in our fate…” She sings softly as the acoustic guitar playing out the plain beautiful jazz-folk.
In contrast, “Pirate Song”, rattles against the downtown platform like a group of beat-buskers screaming, probably swearing, at some poor warden all at once. Walking upright bass backfired her erratic vocal phrasing, alongside the up-tempo percussions. Blathering dizziness, she burbles the torchy tunes sparsely, hastily.
Mandell shares the emotional inheritance in her vocals that are both representative of a soft whisper and a raging soul simultaneously. She is often likened to PJ Harvey. I find it exaggerated. Her work is more definitive, well-defined, humorous, yet cunning. “Don’t Lose My Trail” is one song that exemplifies such style. The smartly written songlike weds simple chords and short-verses, resulted in a germophobic PJ Harvey. It makes me think of a series of broken hearts. Driving out, spending most of your time nameless, senseless, thoughtless, on the road, hoping you don’t lose your head. “I hope that you don’t lose my trail / Love… Love…” Mouthing the word softly at the end of the song, she holds on to hope, inside of the heavy box, that of Pandora.
They’re all good. She seems to have it all and everything falls into place. What is not to like?
I guess she’s just a bit too eager. Given variables, the alpha-female persona [anyone dared get in my path, would be destroyed], combines with her high-strung musical elegance in a quadratic form, ensues in a shocking output equation: an artist that continually derided as perhaps a little too hyperbolic.
She is constantly hurt the inherent aesthetics of her work. The more I listen to her the more I feel, that her songs are lacking of strength in building some emotional integration. As if they’re not done properly or she doesn’t feel them or she just like them that way. Wider range of vocal pitch has nothing to do with artistically expressing real feelings. [Again, she is not PJ Harvey.] She is so vigilant about her personal territory that it almost burns people out. Listen to “Christine”, “Dutch Harbor”, and “Silverlake Babies”. Suffocated under the plastic wrap, there is hardly any sense of life in these songs. She could have laughed this off, make an evil eye when nicely being asked to do a better version, sonically. She would say, lighten up, you’re too serious, I’m dead gifted.
Like a good copy of much popular work from well-celebrated artists, her clever compositions brutally become worthless (and I don’t mean trashy) within minutes. They will leave you feeling like you’re listening to yet another cliché. Like a chronic disease, she barely has a hit! [Oh wow, I feel sassy.]
Delving up into a different set of genres could make you sound fresh, that’s the plan. Busy cooking inside the music kitchen, Ms. Mandell, lending a personal touch from her previous gems and the kooky cookbook, deceptively yielded some tailored-made bizarreness. Hosting an unusual dinner party, she staggers the chairs and organizes clean plates. The first dish to be crowned as the ironic creep is probably “Alien Eye”. The gypsy-like rhymes, slowly crawling up on you, bringing Tim Burton’s striped snake swallowing Christmas trees to mind. It’s not like a real sneaky legless monster featured in Samuel L. Jackson’s flight or something.
The woozy “Snakebite” comes in second. Like a wounded wolf, she dished out a bumper bundle of empty promises and stolen kisses. Possibly an ex-lover. Finally, the clock-winding trickster “Digging a Hole” is let out as late teaser. She is still a crowd-pleaser.
The rest, however general, are exceptionally important. Few highlights are made to: “I Believe in Spring”, “Man in a Paper Hat”, and “Madhouse”. The first one resembles a rendition of sophisticated cabaret night, projecting a hopeful romantic ballad for anti-luck lovers. Sleepy-headed lap steel guitar overcasts the entire subtle orchestral instrumentation. It gets you high on the thought of fanciful tropical island. Why do I get the feeling that the spring is telling us a story of a love jinx? In jazz-heavy “Man in a Paper Hat”, she transforms into a nightclub chanteuse who travels from town to town with the excellent line-up band, paying a visit to southern fringe, doing a small gig for a couple of free drinks, dragging out a tall tale of a man in a paper hat. While in the carnival-esque “Madhouse”, she plies the Fat Tuesday festive with delta blues slight. I picture a bunch of crazy upper-class bore rented a house between the hills, doing whatever they please, no rules attached, acid trip chronicles introduced.
And there she is. Host lady with the apron, asking, what do you fancy for dinner? Like a giant word sleuth puzzle, I could never catch on her lyrics. I just go with the most appealing. Maybe some party regulars at the madhouse could. I don’t want no trouble.
As is said, better friends than foes. Enjoy.
Eleni Mandell, Space Baby Records, 2001
[Key Track] Dreamboat