Eleni Mandell is the quiet girl in the back of the classroom who somehow always says something brilliant when she speaks. Despite putting out a reliably solid body of work, touring often, having excellent side projects, and palling around with the likes of Tom Waits, she has somehow always stayed just below the radar of big musical fame. Perhaps it’s her incredibly polite, soft-spoken demeanor in interviews and concert chatter. Perhaps it’s the relatively normal life she’s lived, growing up in Los Angeles with a dentist-father and a first kiss that took place by a pizza parlor. Perhaps sending hand-written thank-you notes to everyone who ordered her previous record, Miracle of Five, online just made her seem too nice for rock. Perhaps it’s all a matter of distribution and promotion, the mysterious inner workings of the music business.
Whatever it is that has kept Mandell out of the spotlight, she’s brought her own Artificial Fire (Zedtone) this time, and her flame is burning bright. Artificial Fire is the first album produced by Mandell and her bandmates, in addition to being the first to feature Jeremy Drake on guitar. Mandell also plays electric guitar (rather than acoustic) for the first time. This is an album full of firsts, and an economically worthwhile one at that, containing fifteen tracks.
Despite the album’s length, none of the songs feel unnecessary, and each critic seems to be picking a different favorite, illustrating the diverse sounds on Artificial Fire. The songs are primarily united by Mandell’s silky voice. While she could sing a math book and make it sound sexy, the spell of her voice is not just in its beauty, but in her unusual phrasings and melodies as well. In “It Wasn’t the Time, It Was the Color”, Mandell deftly wraps difficult lyrics around each other into a lovely paean to tender memories. That song is one of the more straightforward, acoustic tracks on the album, as is the stunning “Personal.” “My eyes are the color of martini olives/ I only drink two, maybe three,” Mandell begins in “Personal”, which begins with a personal ad and ends with wistful speculation about what lovers do.
There are plenty of rock numbers on Artificial Fire, most of which are unified by Drake’s deft and slightly funk guitar solos. Mandell’s rock songs are softer than on Thrill, her most feral album to date, but her current rock songs have more variety to them. The album opener and title track, “Artificial Fire”, is perhaps the best of these, glowing with flashy guitars, saucy delivery, and a Canadian tryst that wasn’t all she’d hoped it would be. The closing track, “Cracked”, is a snarling punk number, and “Bigger Burn” is a tour de force in which Mandell practically yelps that “it was worth the wait to find you and dare you to kiss me.”
Particularly on songs like “Cracked”, it’s hard to remember that this is the same voice who languidly details a sensuous afternoon on “In the Doorway” and coquettishly waits for a kiss in “Tiny Waist”. Kisses are indeed a theme on Artificial Fire, perhaps the work of the “Make-Out King” she introduced on her last album, Miracle of Five (2007, Zedtone). Eleni Mandell is all about kisses, and they fly effortlessly through Artificial Fire as implements of lust, love, and revenge alike.