Eleni Mandell has always been a bit of a musical chameleon. From album to album she refuses to adhere to stylistic constraints, exploring everything from avant garde cabaret noir (2000’s Thrill) to straight country (2003’s exceptional Country for True Lovers) to AM pop (2013’s I Can See the Future). And while this stylistic dabbling can become somewhat maddening from the listener’s perspective, the overall consistency of the work itself, coupled with the warmth and ease of her delivery, allows for near immediate forgiveness for occasional left turns.
And so after last year’s return to country on Let’s Fly a Kite, Mandell explores her jazzier side on Dark Lights Up. Having moved to Yep Roc, a label that has long since proven itself one of the most consistent in terms of quality, several albums prior, Mandell here continues here more subdued exploration of jazz-tinged singer-songwriter pop. It’s an easy, wistful approach well suited to her vocal tonality and approach to songwriting.
Opening track “I’m Old Fashioned” functions as a sort of mission statement for not only Mandell, but also the album itself. It’s a light-hearted throwback aesthetic that owes as much to Blossom Dearie as it does Harry Nilsson in terms of musicality, song structure and phrasing. Singing the praises of a lifestyle more in keeping with the 1950s and ‘60s and the 2010s, it’s a charming examination of how modern conveniences have tended to create a remove from a more actively engaged way of life, not only with household appliances but also the people who populate our day-to-day.
From there, Dark Lights Up keeps things appropriately light, Mandell cleanly and precisely chirping her way through a series of pleasantly innocuous pop songs. On “Cold Snap”, she details the way in which LA’s weather can turn on her in a snap (replete with unison snaps for added emphasis). More than anything, Mandell’s approach aims for that pre-rock period dominated by Tin Pan Alley and the early Brill Building songwriters who managed to tell simple, relatable stories through hummable melodies and unobtrusive performances.
Unlike those exploring similar revisionist territory, Mandell manages to imbue her songs with both the humorous and the mundane. The methodical details of “China Garden Buffett”s love story and lyrical approach to Mandell’s understated delivery call to mind Rufus Wainwright at his most restrained. In fact, China Garden Buffett would not sound out of place in Wainwright’s hands, so in his proverbial wheelhouse are both the lounge piano flourishes and subtle nuances of Mandell’s impeccable phrasing. It’s a beautifully languid piece that serves as one of the album’s highpoints.
While certainly toeing the line of what amounts to the cloyingly twee, Mandell’s affability helps maintain a sense of goodwill not generally afforded such lightweight fare. And ultimately it’s Mandell herself who is the album’s saving grace. In lesser hands, much of the material here would fall flat. Only Mandell could deliver a line like “There’s a town called heartache / In the state of misery / I used to live there all year round” without sounding overly maudlin.
Similarly, “Old Lady”, with its chorus of “how did I get so old?” puts into song the emotions felt by those for whom life has seemed to have flown by. It’s a winning, witty approach to aging process that will hopefully find a wider audience, one for whom the sentiments will no doubt resonate.
Ultimately, Dark Lights Up is yet another fine set of songs and performances in a long line of them from the criminally underrated and always enjoyable Eleni Mandell. Whether or not this album proves her breakthrough is of little consequence in that she’s already created a body of work of which she can be immensely proud and from which the converted will long be able to draw satisfaction and enjoyment. Perfectly suited for a lazy sunny afternoon, Dark Lights Up is an eminently enjoyable album full of jazz-indebted pop, hooky melodies and subtle songwriting of the highest order.
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