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Music Review: Eleni Mandell – Artificial Fire

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Eleni Mandell is playing with Artificial Fire, the seventh full-length album of her career that dates back to 1998. How many music lovers does she hope to draw closer to the flame?

A lifelong Los Angelina, Mandell apparently has a burning desire to succeed, even if it means dealing with an identity crisis as she tries to find her true self. But the doe-eyed singer-songwriter certainly seems willing to leave the dark side behind, become more accessible and reveal everything she’s got to a broader audience with this offbeat but captivating new record that was released on February 17 (Zedtone Records).

Mandell takes on all styles and personas, going from brave New Waver on the opening title track to space-age poet-mutant on “I Love Planet Earth” and “God Is Love” to jazzy torch singer on “Tiny Waist” and “Right Side” to straight-ahead hard-rock chick on “Bigger Burn” and the closing “Cracked.”

Mandell big poster Where is she going with all this? Who knows, but when your influences are as eclectic as your playlist and include X, Tom Waits, George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tammy Wynette, the possibilities are endless.

Mandell enlisted the services of guitarist Jeremy Drake for this album and he’s become part of her regular band that includes drummer Kevin Fitzgerald and bassist Ryan Feves. They also were involved in arranging the songs, all 15 of which were written by Mandell. But it’s Drake’s ability to adapt to the stylistic changes (B-52’s-like riffs on “Artificial Fire,” jangly accompaniment throughout the sprite “Little Foot”) that help hold this project together and bring rougher-around-the-edges dynamics to this polished prose.

Other outside contributions come from X drummer DJ Bonebrake (cool vibes on “Tiny Waist” and “Front Door”), singer Inara George (one-third of the Living Sisters with Mandell and Lavender Diamond’s Becky Sharp) and Eleni Mandell 2Danny T. Levin, whose horn playing brought weight to the breezy pop sensibilities of “Right Side” and “Don’t Let It Happen.”

Mandell is blessed with a sultry alto and a literary sense but her quirk doesn’t work all the time. The stream-of-consciousness banter in “Personal” should be renamed “Too Much Information” as she reveals,

“I like to drink coffee / With one cube of sugar
Always with cream / And never with milk.”

But if one song can make buying an entire CD worthwhile, it’s “It Wasn't The Time (It Was The Color).“

It’s 3 minutes, 15 seconds of pure pop heaven about a first-kiss moment, and deserves to be played during a climactic TV or movie scene when young (or old) lovers take charge of their lives and decide they’ll be together forever.

Sure, her song “Girls” off the 2007 Miracle of Five may have been featured on Episode two of HBO’s True Blood last year but it can’t compare with “It Wasn't The Time (It Was The Color).”

Like many other great artistic endeavors, the song was based on a real-life experience. In a recent interview with NPR’s Morning Edition host Renee Montagne, Mandell recalled her first kiss. “It was a week after the end of eighth grade. I was with friends after getting back from the beach, waiting for one of my friend’s mothers to pick us up. He was on a bus, driving by and saw us. And he and his friend got off the bus. And he said, 'Aren’t you gonna kiss me goodbye?’ He kissed me more than I knew he was gonna kiss me. And I remember really feeling like my knees sort of buckled.”

The networks should get in a bidding war for this gem because it ranks right up there with Ida Maria’s “Keep Me Warm,” which made for a brilliant ending to last season’s Grey’s Anatomy.

Eleni Mandell 1 Like young love, “It Wasn't The Time …” starts out innocently enough, with “Dad in his red Pendleton shirt / Shag carpet, brown sofa.” …

And when he kisses her … the fireworks follow. This song should come with a guarantee: It will produce goose bumps or you get your money back.

According to Mandell, Artificial Fire comes from the French translation for fireworks – Feu d'artifice. Artificial or not, the fire within this explosive performer isn’t likely to burn out anytime soon.

• For Eleni Mandell news, song clips, concert dates and more, go to her Website or MySpace page.
• Eleni Mandell begins an 11-city tour of the West Coast and Midwest in Goleta, California, on March 18. She is scheduled to play the Hi-Dive in Denver on March 30.
• Go to npr to listen to Eleni Mandell's entire interview.
• See the video for “Artificial Fire,” directed by Manny Marquez, below:

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  • Roby

    saw her in concert in Berlin, never heard about her before and was truly amazed. ‘Tiny waist’ had done it for me… My interpretation of her lyrics is somehow different than yours though. I feel the whole deals with one relationship that didn’t work out, “no hard feelings, but it’s a pity”… I may be wrong, but the parents episode seems to fit there too, as if a failed marriage of the parents would be (if not a likely predictor of) a confirmation that shit (in relationships) happens. I feel the album has a film-like quality with each (connected) episode highlighted by the music that most appropriately expresses the text’s mood.

  • carmen

    Enjoyed this review. Will look forward to her concert. Keep us informed.

  • Michael

    Thanks for the comments, Matt. I’ve never seen Eleni perform but plan to catch her concert in Denver later this month. I’ll let readers know how it goes.

  • Matt

    Cool review. Hopefully, this will be a breakout year for Eleni, a truly underrated performer.