By Anthony Mark Happel
Eleni Mandell is an accomplished, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter/post-modern chanteuse. She is an existential being, to be sure, existing mostly in her own musical universe. Best known on the left coast, her Pacific Ocean-blue, cosmopolitan, jazzy, post-alt.country grandelusions play off of the model of a lonely girl troubadour out on the road of life, kicking around and playing games of hearts just like the men. She writes songs that sound like they could be shared with Tom Waits or John Hiatt or Guy Clark or Ryan Adams, as they stretch between poles of tension.
But she doesn't travel down those roads quite far enough. She can handle smoky, 60s pop, as she does on “Right Side”. She can do a slightly chilly post-rock thing like she does on “Personal,” but the latter is not as successful as the former in this instance. And the string arrangements are a completely unnecessary distraction. More of these songs should be stripped to the bone, like the Elvis Costello-flavored “It Wasn’t the Time.” Mandell has a great sultry voice, sounding unlike any other current female “rock” singer, but I would say the closest comparison might be a younger Chrissy Hynde. When you couple that with her ability to pull of the Shelby Lynne-like soul country of “Don’t Let it Happen” or the dramatic Julee Cruise-like moves of “I Love Planet Earth,” you start to hear her full potential.
I don’t know if the songs on this album have the bite required to really win her a wider audience; something's missing here. She’s labored in relative commercial obscurity for a while, and she makes the type of music that begs for a breakthrough moment. And while she’s got the vocal talent to do whatever she pleases, it’s still all about the songs in the end. Without a spark that can set her a little further apart from the pack, Artificial Fire remains, at times, a somewhat dull flame.