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Eleni Mandell works her dark sense of humor
Turning an impossible trick
by Mark Anderson

ccording to the old adage, every man wants to go to bed with a whore and wake up with a virgin.

Worthwhile investments: Eleni Mandell has released six recordings since 1999. ["Eleni," by Mary Bergherr]

Eleni Mandell, in strictly musical terms, turns just such an impossible trick.

And, along with displaying a dizzying galaxy of additional music-making know-how, she also appeals to the fairer sex. Mandell's songwriting can be down-home simple, sophisticated, silly, outrageous and sly. Her singing goes from bawdy to beautiful and her nimble band handles the hell out of folk, country, jazz, mariachi, punk, gypsy, blues, rock and at least a few more.

She's recorded five diverse albums and a jazz EP since 1999 – worthwhile investments all.

The independent release of Mandell's 2000 album, Thrill, caused the New Yorker magazine to call her "perhaps the best unsigned musician in the business." The LA Weekly picked her as the best songwriter in Los Angeles for last year (in a tie with Elliott Smith). Mandell's Web site reveals a mountain of positive press.

Afternoon: the latest came out in June.

And on a recent Friday night at the White Eagle in Portland, dozens of people showed up for her six-dollar show.

That's right, dozens.

Even so, it was obvious from the start, with the opening notes of "Pauline," a slinky, noirish, secret-agent sounding song, that the sparse local faithful were in for something special.

Mandell and her subtle band turned in an hour-long set and a handful of encores that explored endless avenues of musical expression. Josh Grange, on guitar, keyboard and pedal steel, provided rich musical landscapes. Kevin Fitzgerald's drumming was creative and spare. Ryan Feves had many moments to shine on stand-up bass. And Mandell's straightforward way with an acoustic guitar showcased someone who has obviously earned their chops over time and in front of countless friends and strangers.

Thrill: Mandell's 2000 effort gained the New Yorker's notice.

So how does someone of such immense talent write brilliant songs, make exquisite recordings, maintain a fine-tuned band and travel the world, yet barely skirt a life of waitressing (her recent vocation) or worse?

"I also think it's important to have a sense of humor," Mandell was quoted as saying a few years back. "Mine is maybe a little dark. I do think there's a lot of humor in what I do."

"Maybe, Yes," the title song from Mandell's six-song jazz EP from early this year, rises and falls to the swells of a sunny bossa nova backdrop, all accordion, guitar and bass.

The song, a thinking-out-loud debate on the implications of its title's two words, ends with:

Maybe isn't calm and cool / Maybe better stay in school
If you don't know what to do / Maybe it's goodbye to you

Yes is funny, yes is rich / Yes says baby make a wish
Or two

Maybe, Yes: the six-song Jazz EP from early 2004.

A country song from last year, "You're All Bad (And That's Why You Were Invited), snaps off a perfect piece of super-sized libido.

"No Good, No More," a manic, Euro-sounding folk song from Thrill, starts out at breakneck speed. "I won't be good any more," she begins, before predicting a litany of her own bad behavior – cursing, snarling, drinking, howling, tramping and then some – all in apparent search of some break-up pity.

By the time she reaches the chorus, though, she's ready with some serious accusations to draw a steady bead on her target:

Killer of high spirits / Killer of trust
Killer of all my dreams / Killer of love

A song or two later she's as likely to throw in some rough-and-tumble rockabilly as to croon a torch song and break your heart

Right here, then, is where the writer would normally berate and cajole readers for not supporting yet another artist who has somehow escaped the monied mainstream in an age of one-size-fits-all radio and superstars born on TV.

Country for True Lovers: Mandell's release from 2003.

Except that this music-hungry writer hadn't heard of Mandell until this year, either.

It was only while surfing the Web during P-Town's paralyzing January snowstorm that I happened upon some scribe who'd listed Country for True Lovers among his year-ending top-10. Many days later, after collecting and listening through all Mandell's albums, I realized: there are no ... bad ... songs.

Eleni Mandell is in her mid-30s, doing what she loves and likely to be at the height of her powers for years – the woman men want ... and women want to be.

Which probably means that she'll just keep playing music and the customers will come.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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