WHO’S AFRAID OF ELENI MANDELL?
Imagine the punk rock offspring of Tea Leoni and Corin Tucker, raised in LA on a diet of PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, and Nina Simone and you’re getting close to what Los Angeles-based singer Eleni Mandell brings to the table. Oh, and did I mention she’s like a lion tamer, whipping her charges with cat-and-nine-tails barbs as hot as the Mojave sun and just as sexy as a desert sunset?
Tuesday night at Martyr’s, Mandell owned the crowd, and only with the power of her voice, solitary acoustic guitar, and sheer presence. With her dark eyes like rubies peering out into the club, Mandell brought to life her dusty, musky tales of love, lust, and the 2K1 human condition.
Her smoky delivery and she-devil lyrics bring to mind the sultry-like-a-fox erotica of a PJ Harvey, but Eleni Mandell is not simply the American version. There isn’t the same rage in her sound. “Too Bad About You” brings together a pretty Lulu/ Brenda Lee vocal with summers-day plucking and a sidelong, knowing glare that keeps the guys guessing. “My Bradbury dreams won’t keep me from seeing the truth,” she sings. “You should have come with me. Too bad about you.” It’s Sci Fi, LA, and lovelorn cock-tease wrapped up in a fish taco package too tough and too dusty for even the shady-eyed fool at the end of the bar who thinks, “Yeah, she digs me.” Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up.
On Thrill (Zedtone), her second album, “Too Bad About You” is followed by “1970 Red Chevelle,” which lets you know that this girl sees right through the big engine posturing of the lost souls driving through the LA night. On Thrill (as well as Wishbone , her self-released 1999 debut), Mandell fleshes out her song stories w/ touches of marimba, percussion, and bass. But the albums retain her live set’s dusky feel, like a mirage shimmering off a desert highway on an all-night drive to Los Angeles and all the potential (for love and loss) that that city harbors beneath its smog.
At times on Tuesday, the vibe was almost cabaret-like, as Mandell’s offhanded sashaying behind her worn acoustic guitar melded with beautiful vocal key changes. Quiet to loud to throaty to sexy all in one measure. The crowd stood silent, enraptured. (Whispered to the barkeep) “I’ll take a Miller High Life, please…” Something needs to cool this room down.
Mandell’s vocals remind me a lot of Paula Frazer, another west coast chanteuse with the ability to move between notes with sultry fluidity. Frazer’s work with her band Tarnation always seemed to be drenched in the light of a distant fire. Both women’s voices conjure plenty of imagery: speakeasy flappers; backroom deals; Americana murder ballads; and the Moulin Rouge on a more wild night. The fact that Eleni Mandell can bring all of this out with only her voice and a guitar proves the ability that left her audience’s collective jaw scraping the floor Tuesday night at Martyr’s.