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ELENI MANDELL

Wishbone

(Mr. Charles Records)

***

CONSUMERS TAKING A gander at the cover photo of L.A. songstress Mandell's debut might think she's another tortured/sensitive wingnut along the lines of Fiona Apple or Jewel: she's running down the aisles of a library's stacks, frantically looking back over her shoulder as if being pursued. One listen to this disc, however, will dispel that notion. Mandell may title one song "I'm Your Girl," but when she purrs in a low, slightly menacing voice, "Step up boy/ I'll make you feel like a beginner," it's pretty clear she's no shrinking violet.

Singing-wise, Mandell suggests a cross between P.J. Harvey and Nick Cave, both in the way she cloaks her vocals in steamy innuendo and in her reliance on the lower register (often delivered in a half-spoken manner). It gets better -- musically, her arrangements recall the kitchen sink approach of the Latin Playboys and Tom Waits, with creaky percussion, noirish flourishes (odd snatches of keyboards, echo everywhere) and vocals often located midway down into the mix and not in the foreground. Mandell can rock out with the best of today's femmesters, as evidenced on a track like the fuzzy guitar cruncher "Careless Driver"; but her forays into moodplay and atmospherics ("Nickel Plated Man," for example, is a cinematic, claustrophobic slice of lounge diva-dom) are what set her apart from the legions of Lilith-wannabes. (Contact: Mr. Charles Records, POB 292528, Los Angeles, CA 90029.)

-- Fred Mills

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