(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

CD Review - Eleni Mandell, Artificial Fire


I was listening to Studio 360, which is a cool interview/analysis show on PRI. The February 13th show had Eleni Mandell on, playing music from her latest album and talking about her back story. I found both to be fairly intriguing. She talked about growing up in LA, being a fan of X and the punk scene of the day. It sounds like she's done a number of other "styles" before this album but the stuff I heard really caught my ear. It was enough to get me to order her disk.

Overall, Artificial Fire has a dreamy, retro sound. Richly layered, breathy vocals complement guitars that often sound more keyboard-like, with pedal tones and arpeggios. Others have commented on her voice as being reminiscent of Chrissy Hynde but I hear it as more like Margo Timmons (Cowboy Junkies). That perspective meshes better with the music. The album has a slower, thoughtful vibe that somehow reminds me of the end of summer or maybe early autumn. The heavy use of reverb and sparse arrangements add a sense of detachment and distance (they can also evoke some of the Sugar Cubes old songs). Despite her invocation of X in her interviews, for the most part she's not trying to do that sort of thing and she doesn't really approach her vocals like Exene Cervenka.

There are a couple of exceptions to the general ambiance: Bigger Burn, Little Foot, and Cracked are all more upbeat. Cracked sounds like it should be by X (although with a Patti Smith vocal) and Little Foot has some nice Elvis Costello style lyrical phrasing.

My favorite tracks are the title tune, Artificial Fire, and Needle and Thread. They both have ear-grabbing discordant guitar licks and some gypsy sounding melodic lines that remind me a lot of Eric McFadden's songs. The lyrics on each of these are well done in different ways. In Artificial Fire, a song that conflates treasure hunting with a relationship, she has great lines like:
I'm a killer at heart
And I wanted to feel
So I laid out my trap
With my artificial fire
On Needle and Thread, she uses a neat lyrical conceit of starting the lines with "For" (e.g. "For one...", "Fortuitous...", "Formerly...", etc), which catches your attention but doesn't go on long enough to cloy.

Another great track is Don't Let It Happen, which has the simple Billy Bragg type guitar groove that I love with a Ronettes vocal arrangement. Aside from the sweetly simple R&B vibe, the lyrics are killer. Here's the bridge:
Our future is dangerous
Who knows where we'll be
I've already read the letter
You're gonna write to me
The album is weakest when it takes the symbolism too far. Both God is Love and I Love Planet Earth are both weak because the lyrics can't carry the songs even though the music is good. The symbolism slips into cliche and imagery that's intended to be deep but misses the mark.

By contrast, Two Faces, nails the "obscurely symbolic" target. It takes a sparse, jazzy arrangement with stop-and-go percussion and an angular, aggressive lead and pairs this with some very threatening imagery to build a delicious sense of tension. The only YouTube version I could find doesn't do it justice (but check it out if you're interested).

Artificial Fire is a solid effort and well worth checking out, especially if you like that Cowboy Junkies feel but don't want something purely derivative.

This needs a good sour Belgian lambic beer, like Cantillon Gueze, to lend that piquant touch. Sit outside in the twilight to get the right feel...

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