Eleni Mandell is smiling on her seventh album, Artificial Fire. She’s toned down the boho Tom Waits shtick and PJ Harvey poutiness of yore, traded them in for girl-group cooing, major-key pop/rock ditties and lazy love songs that waft on the breeze like blown kisses. Mandell’s alto voice, one of the sexiest in Los Angeles, is languorous as ever, and she’s still got the same finely etched descriptions that would have you re-experience fleeting moments that you never experienced in the first place. Only this time, there’s no mood lighting.
It’s Ikea bright and safe on Artificial Fire, with Mandell’s come-ons and delicious turns-of-phrase blanched by a production that sands down the sharp edges and sucks the carbon monoxide from the smoky parts. New guitarist Jeremy Drake, a fixture of the Los Angeles avant-garde (just like Nels Cline, who played on Mandell’s last album, The Miracle of Five), sounds either muzzled or too shy on “God Is Love” and “Tiny Waist,” both songs that beg for the skronky Marc Ribot solos that Drake can’t quite hit. The line “Turn up the band/ And let’s get down again” screams sex. All we get is a dribble of sweat, dripping down the verses of “Tiny Waist” in cutesy staccato scales.
Mandell hampers Artificial Fire from smoldering all the way through with a frustrating mix of some of her best ever songs and some totally pedestrian material. In the former category goes “It Wasn’t The Time (It Was The Color),” an accreting smear of striking imagery and sadness (“ The summer always stung/ Bright like metal/ The bank was built/ With green glass/ I felt so forgettable”) that culminates in a bursting-heart cowboy crescendo. “Little Foot” and “Cracked” rock harder than anything Mandell’s done since “Sylvia” from Wishbone (1998), and the Inara George duet, “Don’t Let It Happen,” re-enacts that “Crimson and Clover” style, 1960s prom weepiness with stunning authenticity. How the same woman could write a bland “1,2,3,4” copy like “Right Side” or the repetitive slog “Needle and Thread” is a head scratcher. The inconsistency is maddening.
Mandell’s best, most varied album is hidden somewhere inside Artificial Fire. You have to dig through 20 minutes of brightly painted filler to find it, and unfortunately 12 of those minutes make up the album’s first three songs. The album’s American Apparel ad production doesn’t help. Somebody, get Eleni Mandell back in touch with Jon Brion. She deserves better.