By: Eric Greenwood
Chances are you've never heard of Eleni Mandell, and I'm recommending that you change that as soon as possible. She may be a singer/songwriter from L.A., but don't hold that against her. She has an impressive pedigree of collaborators and influences, ranging from Tom Waits to Victoria Williams to L.A. punk legends, X. She has a rich, smoky voice that jumps out of the speakers with such vibrancy and energy that she could beguile you with an of the cuff rendition of something as ubiquitous as "Happy Birthday." Yep, she's that good. I'm truly astounded that she's not a household name by now, especially considering that Afternoon is her fourth album.
Mandell's music ignores all that is trendy and faddish, instead opting for a dark and soulful collection of jazzy, sometimes twangy pop that veers on the brink of both madness and seduction. Mandell croons and coos her way through music that sways loosely but upon closer inspection is actually quite technically challenging. Her backing band is ridiculously talented, incorporating stand-up bass, organ, drum brushes, and pedal steel guitars to accentuate her husky lilt. Mandell's voice, at times, resembles Fiona Apple's lower register, but it's far more versatile and animated. Plus, she's not a spaced-out, pro-turkey ranting freak like Ms. Apple, so there's that.
The sultry sway of "American Boy" opens Afternoon with a rose-tinted allure. Mandell's voice is so captivating that it's nearly impossible not to be transported to some surreal, smoky lounge inside of a David Lynch film. The title track switches gears into more rocking territory with flirtatiously amoral lyrics ("I want to be your afternoon/I want to be your good time girl") and Mandell relishes the sexual tension. She has total control of her voice, but there's a mounting tension that always threatens to become unhinged. She can whoop and holler like a banshee when she gets angry (much like PJ Harvey or Patti Smith), but her forte is definitely the ballad.
Afternoon offers few glimpses into Mandell's wild side, however. It's a subdued record compared to the much of her output (barring her brief foray into straight country in 2003), as it was her goal to make an uncomplicated album this time around. Her voice is the undisputed centerpiece, and while it can smother you with its constant demand for attention, the rewards are too many to ignore. And much akin to her idol Tom Waits, she is an engaging storyteller, and her songs unfurl with a literary grace always filled with hushed sensuality and sexual mystery. Even if the music isn't your cup of tea, you won't be able to nod off under the spell of her croon.