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Eleni Mandell: A fresh spin on retro

February 20, 2009 |  4:24 pm

The singer-songwriter funnels personal experience through a melange of musical eras, creating lively story sketches

On a crisp Sunday morning, singer-songwriter and Los Feliz denizen Eleni Mandell wandered the flea market at Pasadena Community College in a slouchy cardigan and vintage sunglasses. She picked through tables cluttered with copper bracelets, picture frames and dusty velvet hats, any of which could serve as a mysterious prop in one of Mandell's retro-tuned torch songs.

Vendors manned the booths, watching for shoplifters who, some said, have gotten worse since the recession hit. Scanning with her martini- olive-colored eyes -- to borrow a description from "Personal," one of her latest burners -- Mandell spied a gold-and-white '50s bathing suit, saying it'd be great for the stage. It didn't fit, but it was easy to see what attracted her: a touch of glam but with character, a  storied emblem from another era.

"It's better to come here looking for nothing," she said. "You'll have better luck that way."

Fortune has worked in complex ways for the L.A. native gifted with a voice that's as smoky and coolly moderate as a chanteuse secreting a pearl-handled revolver beneath her dress in a noir novel.

She's released six albums, building a modest but devoted fan base that's as varied as her music, which absorbs country, cocktail jazz, hushed confessionals and bristly rock.

She received some mainstream notice in 2005 for singing a sexed-up version of Cole Porter's "I Love Paris," for a  va-va-voom Carl's Jr./Hardee's ad featuring Paris Hilton. Many of her songs have been in movies and on TV, including in "Six Feet Under," "True Blood," "Friday Night Lights" and the Liv Tyler vehicle "Heavy."

Yet despite glowing reviews and the hundreds of fan letters she's received over the years, Mandell has never managed to break big.

"I've always thought there's been something commercial on every album. But I don't think about it at all," she said, regarding the major-label flirtations that have gone nowhere. "I just try to make music I like."

Mandell's new album, "Artificial Fire," released Tuesday, is her strongest case yet for an expanded audience. The 15-song collection features plenty of her artful sketches and standout work from her versatile band: guitarist Jeremy Drake, bassist Ryan Feves and drummer Kevin Fitzgerald. Her tiny label, Zedtone, is throwing more energy into this record than ever before, betting that, at last, Mandell will find some measure of real commercial success.

"I think Eleni is the most well-hidden musical treasure in all of L.A.," said Inara George, who sings backup on two of the most delicately gorgeous tracks on "Artificial Fire." "I don't understand why a label hasn't snatched her up. She's one of my favorite lyricists."

The two also perform together with Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark in the lady-harmony act the Living Sisters, which just wrapped a new album.

The big guns might have overlooked Mandell, but she's not lacking for support. At a January show at Hotel Cafe, one twentysomething woman keened with every song start, asking at one point if she'd missed "Make-Out King," a starry-eyed cut from Mandell's last album, "Miracle of Five."

Another fan in Toronto, Ian Pearson, felt so strongly about Mandell's music that he started Zedtone, a one-woman showcase for all of Mandell's releases since her 2000 sophomore album, "Thrill." The self-described obsessive music collector first stumbled upon Mandell in 1998 when a local magazine touted her self-financed debut, "Wishbone," as its top album of the year.

"I flipped for that album the way I've flipped over only a few in my life," Pearson said.

After meeting a few times, the  editor-writer  and his muse "dove into" starting a label. His commitment to Mandell is admirable. Despite operating in the red, Pearson is pouring more money than ever into "Artificial Fire," spending $65,000 on publicity and marketing, a figure he said is 50% more than "Miracle of Five."

It's a dream situation for Mandell, an artist who makes music that's pure to her intentions. Her lyrics on the new album are revealing, but not as melancholy as they have been in the past.

"I got tired of the weepy, dark songs," she said.

Most of "Artificial Fire" is about a relationship Mandell had with a local musician with whom she's still friendly, but one song, "Bigger Burn," tells the story of her new love. He first pursued her aggressively, but she pushed him away.

"A year later, we met again and I had to chase him," Mandell said. "Every line in that song is literal."

--Margaret Wappler

Photo by Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times