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Album Review

Jon Brion became ubiquitous on the music scene of the late '90s as a player and producer of sophisticated pop music that looked equally forward and backward, and the albums on which he played and produced also happened to became synonymous with excellence. Eleni Mandell's debut, Wishbone is no different. Although the production of Brian Kehew and Brion is not the star here — Mandell is a jewel of a songwriter — it is spot-on, a perfect match for the melancholy nature of the songs, very sharp, clean, and intuitive with just the right touch of deliberate mysteriousness. Mandell seems to have a familiarity with both Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones (in fact, she thanks Chuck E. Weiss, who also plays on one song), and the music on Wishbone lives up to such heavyweights. Mandell is less grounded in the dowdy, frazzled beat aesthetic, however, and is just as likely to incorporate a bit of spikey pop punch, as on the gleeful "Sylvia," as she is to construct studies of down-and-out characters. So instead of retreating into bygone beat archetypes, she, for example, refers to a "punk rock cat" on the title track. Still, Mandell is a throwback of sorts — a troubadour with a big aching heart — and most of her songs could just as easily come from a pre-rock era. That is, they are mostly (with the exception of "Sylvia" and "Careless Driver") not dependent on rock attitudes or musical textures, and the instrumentation is far from rock-based, incorporating such instruments as chamberlain, pianet, tack piano, vibes, banjolin, vibes, and pedal steel guitar. Although Mandell can come across as a dead ringer for PJ Harvey, affecting a similar plaintive, woozy wail on "Wishbone" and "Meant to Be in Love" and delving into snake imagery on "Snake Song," and although the music of each is, according to emotional resonance if not structure and texture, pure blues, she falls much farther from the rock tree. The album is very percussive, with Mandell's acoustic guitar even seeming more percussive than anything else, and the songs mostly slink by seductively like mournful Mexican ballads. Wishbone, though, should not be confused as a downer of an album. Mandell's vocals generally betray a sly exuberance that balances out any downheartedness, as if she, more than anything, enjoys delving into the raw, blunter side of life.


Born: Los Angeles, CA

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Singing and writing in a style that fuses vintage barroom cool with a here-and-now intelligence and faintly ironic wit, Los Angeles hipster Eleni Mandell initiated her recording career with arty-cool albums packed with her smoky, noir-ish sketches. Mandell, who was a huge fan of L.A. punkers X and beatnik revivalist Tom Waits in her teens, was raised in the Sherman Oaks region of the San Fernando Valley, and began performing out during her years as a student at Berkeley. Soon after, she fell under...
Full Bio
Wishbone, Eleni Mandell
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