CD REVIEW ‘Artificial Fire’ Is Raw and Honest Art

Eleni Mandell Challenges Punk, Minimalism, and Country — and Wins

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Eleni Mandell (third from left) recently released a new album, Artificial Fire. She is pictured here with (left to right) bassist Ryan Feves, guitarist Jeremy Drake, and drummer Kevin Fitzgerald.
Courtesy of Zedtone Records

Eleni Mandell

Artificial Fire

Produced by Eleni Mandell, Ryan Feves, Jeremy Drake, Kevin Fitzgerald, and Dave Trumfio

Zedtone Records

Released Feb. 17, 2009

Two years after the success of her 2007 Zedtone release Miracle of Five, Eleni Mandell is back with her latest work, Artificial Fire. If you take a quick listen to Miracle, you might not imagine that the same artist is the mastermind behind both albums. However, that’s where Mandell’s strength as a songwriter and band member comes through.

While Miracle focused on slower, acoustic-driven ballads (“Wings In His Eyes,” “Moonglow, Lamp Low,” “Salt Truck”), Mandell brought out the electric guitars for Artificial Fire. The title track opens the album, introducing a piercingly dirty and dissonant guitar riff that calls and responds to itself over a steady drum beat. Mandell’s voice is clean through the mix, and the guitar riff returns in between plainly sung lyrics. While Mandell’s conversational and casual singing style mimics that of her earlier releases, the rough and bold guitar work demonstrate rebellion.

Throughout the album, Mandell’s backing band provides a generous amount of support to enrich her songs. Jeremy Drakes (guitar), Ryan Feves (bass), and Kevin Fitzgerald (drums) fill the songs out, and they collaborated with Mandell throughout the recording process.

While Mandell provided guitar work, it’s her voice that stands above on this album. She remarks that for this record, she was trying to get in touch with her inner “teenager” and to make her music more fun and upbeat. Songs like “Little Foot” and the punk-rock closer “Cracked” achieve this youthful feel while still remaining authentic. The latter finds Mandell’s vocals at their rawest and most harsh. The track sounds like a Sleater-Kinney or L7 cover, dripping with girl-power, an anthem promoting freedom from too much thinking: “I just want to forget / there are riches to be found in ignorance.”

On the country-infused “Bigger Burn,” Mandell seems to ruminate on a bad breakup. Her lyrics are direct and forthcoming, as she openly sings “you didn’t call to let me know / you simply walked away / and let it end.”

The trajectory of the album includes the whiplash of the aforementioned heavy hitters, but also a fair share of lighter, atmospheric ballads. “I Love Planet Earth” features a disjoint drum beat interspersed with a solitary guitar riff that echoes throughout the sonic space — listen on headphones to get the full effect. The song even opens with “space fog,” ethereal noises provided by Drake. Mandell approaches minimalism on “Two Faces,” whose false starts and bell-like motifs bring the mood down towards the end of the album.

The clear standout tracks are “Front Door” and “Needle and Thread.” The former successfully utilizes a ring modulator, a guitar effect pedal that creates a unique gong sound. The hypnotic tone chimes throughout the song, lending an amazing structural element to the verses. Mandell shifts between her signature spoken voice and her elegant folk singing.

“Needle and Thread” includes the most interesting chordal harmonies, and a Nels Cline-influenced guitar solo, adding just enough “weird” to the song. (Cline and guitarist Drake are in fact colleagues, and it was Cline who recommended that Mandell recruit Drake for her band.)

Fans of Mandell’s much earlier works may shy away from Artificial Fire, but Mandell has contributed some of her strongest songwriting on this album. The sheer variety of songs and the candor of Mandell’s out-of-the-diary lyrics present an album concept few artists of Mandell’s status have yet mastered.

Eleni Mandell will be performing songs from Artificial Fire at T.T. The Bear’s Place in Cambridge on Sunday, March 8.