Album of the Week, January 20: Thrill by Eleni Mandell

EleniThrill Eleni Mandell grew up in the Los Angeles area where her first musical love was the punk-country band X. She began performing herself while at college in Berkeley; during this time she met Tom Waits associate Chuck E. Weiss — yes, that Chuck E. — who helped her establish her musical career. With the soul and pipes of a torch singer, she merged influences from X and Waits to Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman into her own delightful sonic stew. Mandell landed alt-pop superproducer Jon Brion for her first album, 1998’s Wishbone, which she self financed. Gaining buzz as “perhaps the best unsigned artist in the business,” she put together her second album, the brilliant Thrill in 2000.

Title Thrill
Act Eleni Mandell
Label Mr. Charles Release Date 10/24/00
Producer Brian Kehew
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Pauline
  2. He Thinks He’s In Love
  3. Closer to Him
  4. No Good, No More
  5. Too Bad About You
  6. 1970 Red Chevelle
  7. Moment That You Had
  8. Action Is Action
  9. Nightmare Song
  10. Never Know the Party’s Here
  11. Taking You Out
  12. Bedford (Avenue)
  13. Giving Up the Fight

The album takes off with a bang as Mandell’s driving acoustic guitar propels the story of Pauline. Every line gives another detail about this mysterious, compelling woman, creating a tantalizing but incomplete picture. Mandell pulls out the vocal stops, working from her creepy lower range to a controlled shriek. Not wanting the listeners to catch their breath, she moves into another pulsing number with He Thinks He’s In Love. It’s a perfect song of obsession and lust, delivered with breathless enthusiasm.

Things slow down — but hardly calm down — with the sultry Closer to Him, a more mutual affair that is no less steamy. No Good No More brings in some jazzy touches with a lovely marimba figure and serves as a warning for the territory Mandell will stake out as the disc progresses. Too Bad About You is a simple acoustic ballad that serves as a lovely counterpoint and lets Mandell explore her 40s torch persona a bit.

One of the album’s high points is the love song to a car, 1970 Red Chevelle. It may seem an odd for her passion, but you can feel her easing into the seat and shifting the gears as she races through the song in a stunning driving-as-sex ode. The Moment That You Had is a short, sultry number, allowing a lovely moment of wistfulness before things pick up again. Action Is Action is Mandell at her creepy best as she whispers and talk-sings her way through a menacing come on — “Don’t you want to get some?” The eerie tone continues with the aptly named Nightmare Song, one of the clearest Waits-influenced moments with an odd country edge.

We suddenly find ourselves south of the border with the delightful Never Know the Party’s Here. The trumpet, accordion, and castanets emphasize the little fiesta as Mandell enjoys a bit of sneaky fun. With all the steamy action of the disc so far, Taking You Out could be a simple dating line, but of course it’s something else altogether. A dark woman-wronged song, it portrays a fantasy of revenge that leaves no question about just how out the singer wants to take her former lover. From there we take a quiet stroll along Bedford (Avenue) as we prepare to end our sonic journey.

The closer is perfectly chosen. Giving Up the Fight is an ode to everything Thrill stands for, celebrating passion and lust as derived through the power of music. It’s also a bit ironic, since the process of giving up surrenders the singer to the feelings and experiences that she shares with her listeners, bringing the struggle to us. How we choose to respond is up to us, of course, but Mandell urges us to join her in giving in to her sensual world.

Thrill cemented Mandell’s status as an alt-pop presence, earning comparisons to PJ Harvey. She’s continued on her own distinctive path, recording an album of alt-country quirk a la X and five other wonderful discs each with her unique stamp.

FURTHER LISTENING: Showing off her vocal versatility and her great sense of harmony, Mandell is part of the vocal trio Living Sisters, whose Love to Live is a wonderful, fun listen. All of her solo albums have something delightful to offer; most explore the dark, avant-jazz corners of pop in different but cohesive ways. The strongest after Thrill is the delightful Afternoon.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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