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

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Recording review - Eleni Mandell, Let's Fly a Kite (2014)

Retro stylings and nurturing serenity

Mothers can be nurturing and loving, but they can also be fierce. Eleni Mandell’s last album, I Can See the Future (2012), caught her at the cusp of motherhood—she made that album in the wake of a breakup while pregnant with twins. Unsurprisingly, that project marked a new chapter in her music, and she abandoned the richly shadowed edges she showed on 2009's Artificial Fire (review) in favor of a stripped down simplicity. Let’s Fly A Kite carries that sound further, digging in and grounding some of the ethereal moments. While there is a clear thread running through these releases—Artificial Fire’s “Right Side” presages “Magic Summertime” from I Can See the Future and either song could be arranged for this album—it seems like softer serenity is Mandell’s new normal. At this point, it’s hard to recognize the young woman who avidly followed X and the rest of the L.A. punk scene.

Instead, this latest batch of tunes slips back to the long-ago sounds of Patsy Cline, Dinah Shore, and Patti Page. Like Page, Mandell’s voice is cultured, warm, and clear, and it matches the musical aesthetic of that earlier era. The arrangements are lightly orchestrated with the same kind of studio precision found in popular gems from the 1950s and early ‘60s. Producer Neil Brockbank and Nick Lowe’s backing band deserve high marks for their stellar efforts in that regard. The beautiful interplay of organ and clarinet in the accompaniment for a tune like “Wedding Ring” subtly supports the vocal in a way that modern pop recording has lost. The song features a hint of lyrical disillusion that Mandell’s inspirations might have avoided, but otherwise it’s a perfect period piece.

With the retro feel of her singing and instrumental backing, Mandell treads close to more recent performers like Diana Krall or Linda Ronstadt, although she relies less on interpreting the classics. Her own songs stand up fairly well; she has a good lyrical sense and she knows just how to push her voice melodically. Although her maternal instincts are obvious on “Put My Baby to Bed” and “Little Joy”, Let’s Fly a Kite isn’t aiming for that demographic sweet spot.

So, with a wonderful voice and masterful arrangements, what’s holding the album back? The biggest problem is that it lacks any sense of urgency. With a couple of exceptions, the tunes unroll at a deliberately sedate pace that doesn’t offer much in the way of bumps or excitement. Where Krall and Ronstadt are adept at mixing up tempos and using their phrasing to punch up a song, Mandell settles comfortably into the orchestral pocket. It doesn’t take too long for that to slide into background music. As the details blur and focus slips, some of the tracks begin to sound familiar. Is “Something to Think About” a reworking of Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea”? Not really, but that first line is a near cousin. Similarly, one of the slightly more insistent pieces, “Cool Water”, has a strong Buddy Holly vibe.

In an interesting twist, the most outstanding track on Let’s Fly a Kite, “Maybe Yes”, has the most modern feel. The band still brings their delicate touch, but the song seems more than a decade younger than the rest of the album. Mandell’s lyrics are at their most confrontational (“Maybe doesn’t make me hot/ Maybe doesn’t burn me up”) and that attitude helps. The jazzy backing is upbeat and her sultry energy invigorates the piece. The rest of the time, she seems content to settle into a gentler rhythm of parenthood. She’s undergone changes before, so this, too, will probably pass. Maybe her next release will channel her protective Tiger Mama.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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