Album review: Eleni Mandell – Artificial Fire

Eleni Mandell - Artificial FireListening to most of Los Angeles-based pop chanteuse Eleni Mandell’s recorded output brings to mind a smoke-filled club full of broken-hearted hipsters on a lonely Wednesday night (for those clubs where you can still smoke anyway).   But after spending years perfecting the role of lovelorn torch singer, Mandell released Miracle of Five in 2007.  Its comparatively spartan, acoustic guitar-driven sound was a departure for the singer, and the album finally brought her some much-deserved critical attention.

Mandell moves even further from her roots, albeit in a different direction, with her latest effort, Artificial Fire.  Gone is the sultry film noir atmosphere, and in its place is a much more mainstream effort (although there are still plenty of tales of failed romance).  That’s not to say it’s not engaging because it is; but the quirky and hectic approach of songs like “Pauline” or “Snakebite” is nowhere to be found.  Mandell largely opts for a more conventional and assured songwriting style to complement her delicate, nuanced vocals.

Only a handful of the album’s 15 songs – “Right Side” and the excellent “Needle and Thread” to name a few – will seem familiar to longtime fans, but there are certainly other pleasures to be had.  The funky New Wave vibe of the title cut makes for a very strong album opener, and is followed up by the excellent vocal harmonies and angular rhythms of “God Is Love.”

Later highlights include the moody “Front Door” (featuring a ring modulator simulating the sound of a doorbell – a very neat effect) and “Two Faces”.  Even the non-standouts are never less than pleasant, and contain lots of little details that will undoubtedly reward repeat listens.  (The post-punk of “Cracked”, the album’s closer, does fall a bit flat)

On more than a few cuts Mandell shares the spotlight with her backing band, in particular guitarist Jeremy Drake (recommended to Mandell by guitar genius Nels Cline, who himself played on Miracle of Five).  Drake seems to know exactly when his presence is needed, and his slightly offbeat style is a welcome ingredient in Artificial Fire‘s musical palette.  The rhythm section of bassist Ryan Feves and drummer Kevin Fitzgerald are no slouches either.

Artificial Fire is the work of a performer who knows exactly what she wants to do, is really good at doing it, and is clearly unafraid of alienating her fanbase.  It’s probably wishful thinking to expect this album to launch her to into maintream consciousness, but it could hardly happen to a more deserving artist.

watch Eleni Mandell – “Artificial Fire”

Track listing:

“Artificial Fire”
“God Is Love”
“Right Side”
“Tiny Waist”
“It Wasn’t the Time (It Was the Color)”
“Bigger Burn”
“Little Foot”
“Don’t Let It Happen”
“In the Doorway”
“Needle and Thread”
“Front Door”
“I Love Planet Earth”
“Two Faces”