There are so many Eleni Mandells. One is the timeless singer who dreams in technicolor. Another is Patsy Cline’s pop-side sidekick. Then there’s the Mandell who makes Tom Waits seem normal. There’s also the playful melody maker, who loves vocal harmony so much she needs a side project, Living Sisters, just to get it all out. She’s also the smokey-voiced Mandell who’s spirited by the blues, cabaret, country, Appalachia, confessional folk, and even doo-wop. Then there’s her project, “The Grabs”, a dreamy rock quartet that released a record in 2011 called “Political Disco”, that found Mandell exploring yet another aspect of her marvelous multitudes. At this stage in her career, Mandell should be breathing that rarefied air, where we find PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple, Bjork, and other female artists whose names are synonymous with unbridled creativity, endless musical integrity, singular visions, and a touch for the wonderfully peculiar.
Her first record, 1998’s Jon Brion-produced “Wishbone”, contained a Waits-styled, weirded-out gem called “Nickle Plated Man”. Essentially, the song is Mandell slow-plucking off-key notes on her undersized guitar, in tandem with what sounds like an equally dissonant electric guitar, sporadic clanks standing in for percussion, a touch of keyboard, and a rusty saw. The way she organizes that delightful rag-and-bone shop is mesmerizing. Her earlier records, “Wishbone”, “Thrill” (2000), and 2001’s “Snakebite”, all came with a sense of danger and foreboding. Mandell was the carnival conductor in the middle of a three-ring circus. Her songs were deliciously unpredictable. There were brash tracks with attitude, like the “Wishbone” title track and the sensually super-charged “Action Is Action” — the latter blending sexual trepidation with the notion of wanting “to get some”. “Never Know the Party’s Here” kicked up the brass and accordion, like Mardi Gras in your living room. The song, “1970 Red Chevelle”, conjured up images of 1950s rock, set to surfer rhythms and a punk aesthetic. The lyrics to “Nickle Plated Man” are odd, but stunning, especially the way Mandell delivered them: “With a lousy little grand he’d pay back everyone he owed / Drive the fleet-side / Take the stake-bed / Cafe handlebars / My brushed chrome / Wrap his ring around my finger with a tire iron / There’s too much money in the world, for my nickel-plated man.”
It’s a long way between a song like that and the blissful cheekiness of 2007’s, “Make Out King”, off Mandell’s record, “Miracle of Five”: “I can’t be seen kissing the make-out king … / The make-out king is my bed / And I’m so tired, I think I’m a junkie / His hair is curly / He drinks like nobody knows where he’s going …” She’s a master of many styles, forms, and moods. As she’s progressed, she’s shed some of her idiosyncrasy for softened lullabies, light humor, wistful melodies, and pretty swaying rhythms. But even in her early career, for every experimentally esoteric track like “Madhouse” and “Alien Eye”, there were smooth jazzy forays like the waltzing “Man In the Paper Hat” and the honky-tonk bar meets Spanish-flair of “Tristeza” — two elegant tracks aimed at charming listeners. Most recent records, like “Afternoon” (2004) and “Artificial Fire” (2009), go further into this trend of the beautification of Mandell’s sound. “Artificial Fire” is straight up pop rock and a song like “American Boy” off “Afternoon” brought out Mandell’s inner chanteuse. “American Boy” stripped away all musical adornment, leaving pure storyline, mood and vocal melody.
As a listener, it’s difficult to prefer one Mandell style over another. As soon as one misses the quirky creator of “Hack Jimmy”, along comes warm, pure-pop gems like The Grabs’ “Come Back” or “I’m Lucky”, a song off her upcoming release, the Joe Chiccarelli -produced “I Can See the Future”. “I’m Lucky” is a gorgeous track, full of orchestral strings, and lyrics that carry that Mandell trait of being dryly tongue-in-cheek: “I take myself out for a night on the town / I’m lucky / And I stay home when I’m feeling low down / I’m lucky / Every year I celebrate / Blow out the candles on my birthday cake …” It’s a song that touches on the album title, as Mandell sings about finding “no other fortune teller” who can tell her own future better than what she herself can observe. Like many of Mandell’s songs, it’s a cleverly-written track, with subtle humor just slight enough to be picked up without calling too much attention to itself.
Mandell’s new record continues her shift into an old-fashioned sound and topics that range from love to motherhood to dreamy nostalgia. There are cooing backing vocals and jazzy highlights on “Who You Gonna Dance With”, and a countrified tavern-rock vibe on “Never Have to Fall In Love Again’. But being Mandell, she can’t help but take detours from the main road. “Crooked Man”, contains some of the oddity of a song like “Nickle Plated Man”, with it’s pizzicato strings, and peculiar but ingenious lyricism: “Crooked hands with crooked fingers. Crooked nose and crooked smile / He was bent on being bent / Crooked heart … / Crooked how he tried to kiss me / While he ate an apple whole / Everything he said was wrong, or else he quoted Bob Dylan.”
At the heart of this record is a blithe sense, that comes when someone feels comfortable in their own skin. She’s less self-conscious. Maybe part of that has to do with becoming a mother of twins two years ago. It’s apparent in the easy effortless sway of “Bun In the Oven”, “Don’t Say No”, and “So Easy”. The latter is a drowsy little waltz, cozy in its assessment of love, despite the singer singing that she doesn’t understand how things come “so easy” to “some people”. It’s a song that contains one of her loveliest-conceived melodies since “American Boy”. “I Can See the Future” is further proof that an artist can still be creative heading into their eighth studio release, and that Mandell is nothing short of an American treasure. Notes: All lyrics are unofficial. Her tour for the record begins on July 10 in Los Angeles, Calif. at Hotel Cafe; July 17 in Philadelphia, Pa. at World Cafe Live; July 18 at Annapolis, Md. at Metro Kitchen; July 19 at Arlington, Va. at IOTA; and July 20 in New York at Joe’s Pub.