Identified with Los Angeles' Silver Lake scene, singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell certainly radiates the
kind of hipster smarts associated with the neighborhood.
She's a canny tunesmith with the dead-sexy voice of a cabaret chanteuse who could easily remain a big fish in that small pond, casting her spell over the worshipful habitués of clubland indefinitely. But given the musical scope of her new disc, "Artificial Fire," it appears she's going after bigger game.
Mandell's confidence is striking. As a lyricist, she deftly walks the line between storytelling and confession; as a melodist, she seems equally at home with honeyed, jazzy pop and an angular avant-rock that recalls Tom Waits. But it's with her singing — by turns beguiling, brash, beatific and broken — that she attains greatness.
That said, she's formidably assisted by her core band (guitarist Jeremy Drake, bassist Ryan Feves and drummer Kevin Fitzgerald), as well as D.J. Bonebrake of the great L.A. band X (on vibes), co-producer Dave Trumfio (Wilco, OK Go, Let's Go Sailing) and singer Inara George, one of Mandell's two partners in the delightful siren-song side project The Living Sisters.
"Artificial Fire" kicks off with its title track, a tangle of rude guitar and a stomping beat roaring through the speakers before submitting to the calm authority of Mandell the ringmistress. Then comes the slightly dissociated mysticism of "God Is Love" and the suite of songs that form the collection's surprisingly tender heart: the horn-laced reverie "Right Side"; the intimate litany "Personal," with its gentle current of details gradually forming a wave of yearning; the swoony waltz "Tiny Waist"; and the quietly devastating recitative of "It Wasn't the Time (It Was the Color)," its palette of hues limning a portrait of loss.
After this revealing cluster of songs, Mandell seems bolder, freer than ever. She immediately uncorks the barreling "Bigger Burn," which brings to mind the fearless alt-country expeditions of the Old 97's, and the equally bouncy and infectious "Little Foot." Next comes a foray into incandescent R&B-fueled pop on "Don't Let It Happen." More surprises follow.
Overall, in both sound and story, "Fire" has a distinctly cinematic quality. And if the middle of the flick is an intoxicating sequence of love scenes, giving way to a couple of exhilarating chases, the proceedings climax with the musical equivalent of a shoot-out: the raucous "Cracked" is a furious new-wave/punk kiss-off that salutes the early work of Elvis Costello, Blondie and Robyn Hitchcock. "There are riches to be found in ignorance," Mandell sings here. She may be right, but ignorance of "Artificial Fire" is anything but bliss.