Eleni Mandell has a voice like an eel, like a minx, all litheness and elegance overlaying scarcely concealed danger.
She is a girl with a guitar who writes her own music, but can only be called a singer-songwriter if Tom Waits is a singer-songwriter. On Snakebite, her third album, Mandell steps into her own. She stretches her voice down, down into ever-lower registers, creating a slyly dark mood. Stories of bad choices and lust unfold into a shadowy dreamscape. If Barbara Stanwyk’s Mrs. Dietrichson in Double Indemnity had been a songwriter, this is the album she would have written.
Primarily accompanied by Sheldon Gomberg on upright and electric bass and the incomparable Danny Frankel on drums and percussion, Snakebite also features marimba, vibes, violin, cello, trumpet, electric, lap steel and pedal steel guitars, piano and keyboards. One track, “Christine”, is just vocals and acoustic guitar. The instruments come together in an understated, loose construction. The songs breathe with improvisation inside gleaming craftsmanship.
That craftsmanship is the essence of Mandell’s work. Every word, every syllable is not just carefully chosen but exactingly performed. Vowels are sounded out robustly in one phrase, flat and dry the next. She can ease through a snarl of consonants as gently as a Georgia divorcee or suddenly snap a T like a door slam. In an era where artistic standards careen from processed-to-perfection pop to out-of-control messy metal, the planning and attention given to these songs is arresting.
The lyrics are elliptical, doubling back over one meaning with another layer or two. This inversion is clear from the opening song “Dreamboat”, a soft-voiced waltz. Mandell sings “Dreamboat sailing away . . . Hang on tight there’s trouble below / The blackest blue, we’re going to go / To the bottom, the water, so sorry I cried / Looking back up, are we ocean or sky?”
The imagery lingers. Songs are packed with windows open or cracked, with vagabonds and road trips, falling and fighting. Through it all threads desire, both unfulfilled and fulfilled, albeit unadvisedly: “It’s only what we’re looking for,” Mandell sings like a threat in “Close the Door”, which veers through a claustrophobic landscape of scratching and screaming and mirrors on the floor.
Even her lighter moments are dogged by shadow. “Silverlake Babies” seems tender and sweet, made warm with keyboards and pedal steel — but as she purrs, “We’ll holler and shout as we rattle the cage” she’s singing about an impenetrable chain link fence that surrounds the lovely blue reservoir that gives Silverlake its name. Even when well lit, the pictures she draws are like a noir film, both seductive and nightmarish.
Raised in Los Angeles, Mandell was an unwilling student of violin and piano, then at 15, picked up guitar of her own volition. “When I was thirteen, I heard X,” she told Ink 19 in 2000, “and thought, That’s what I want to do. Then when I was fifteen, I heard Tom Waits, and I said, ‘no, that’s what I want to do.’ A light just went on, it just made sense to me”. The Waits influence is definitely evident in her songwriting; her controlled performance invites comparisons to PJ Harvey.
Despite the influences, this record (produced by Brain Kehew of the Moog Cookbook) creates a signature sound for Eleni Mandell. The attention to detail focused performances pay off. Lyrics mesh with melody unerringly. Sure, it’s a great record: Snakebite is only what you’re looking for.