AFTERNOON (Zedtone) Eleni Mandell
Eleni Mandell is doing a backfloat in a retro-blue pool in the cover shot of Afternoon, her new release on Zedtone. Suggestion, or maybe challenge, drips from her upside-down smile--it feels like an invitation or a dare to join her in that impossible blue. If you do wade into her Afternoon, you will find its shifting water deceptively deep, cool in spots and burning in others.
Mandell has been a fixture on the L.A. scene for many years and has put out four full-length, eclectic collections of songs previously, including a country album (Country for True Lovers). Her music infuses alt-rock with a torch singer's sensibility and a punk's edge. While it's tempting to put Eleni Mandell into a box, like "noir-lounge" or "punk crooner," even odd and outside categories like these don't satisfy. Yes, she croons, and there's that lounge sensibility, and she is dark and edgy, but she also sings country with a Haggard heart and her terrific, concise writing is consistently compelling. It's as if she writes an unspoken question or a pregnant space into each song or character, making them profound, but not inaccessible, buzzing with tension, but not without dry humor--reminiscent of Tom Waits, whom she claims as an early influence.
"American Boy," the lead cut, sets a haunting, blue mood with its smoky sound and inscrutable lyrics. "The blue light drives where I come from / My heart burns like the sun / And I love an American boy / Just one." She follows it up with the title track, a raucus minute and a half romp through backdoor love. "I wanna be your afternoon / When you take a break from work / When you see your debutante in the city, man / I wanna know I saw you first." "Yellow Light," one of the more beautiful ballads, comes at the very end and evokes a different kind of afternoon, a golden, lazy day ("yellow day, afternoon/Springtime, sidewalks,/barefoot, neighborhood), but goes on to belie the peace of the moment by protesting, "Harmless / Daydreams are harmless / I'm just playing." Mandell is by turns aggressive and darkly playful, wounded and hopeful; yet all her contradictions ring true, buoyed by the strength of her writing. Her melodies weave around you: you get caught in their odd turns, humming them much later, surprised at how catchy they are.
The band on Afternoon is Mandell's touring band, which helps unify the album's sound, even as it bends genres. There is no grandstanding hereonly outstanding musicianship supporting Mandell's haunting vocals. This album is about the songs, and the band, under the guiding hand of producer/band member Joshua Grange, never loses sight of that for a minute. Organic drums (Kevin Fitzgerald), alternately tight and swelling bass (Ryan Feves), spooky organ, pedal steel and electric guitars (Grange) create moods and space for Mandell to sing her characters into life.
This Afternoon seems less about lazy days basking in the sun and more about bruised and swollen moments, hard truths seen in the half light of daydreams, and daylight hours that might as easily be spent smoking and raging in a bar as floating in a pool of perilous and liquid ballads. Eleni Mandell is only inviting you in--no promises about the water being fine. Judith Edelman