Eleni Mandell’s Best Album Offers Grim Insight Into Survival in the Prison-Industrial Complex
Eleni Mandell got the inspiration for her new album, Wake Up Again, behind bars. No, she wasn’t doing time. She was teaching songwriting as part of the Jail Guitar Doors program founded by the MC5’s Wayne Kramer. The record – streaming at Spotify – is surprisingly her most indie rock-flavored release to date, at least until about the halfway point. But it’s also her most relevant, and most lyrically powerful. These clear-eyed, sobering songs elegantly and often allusively chronicle the cycles of despair, and addiction, and hopelessness of being caught in the prison-industrial compex. As Mandell makes crystal clear, orange is anything but the new black. She’s currently on tour, with a New York stop on June 27 at 9:30 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $15
Milo Jones’ reverbtoned guitar weaves enigmatically, going nowhere in particular, throughout the album’s opening track, Circumstance, Mandell matter-of-factly traces the outline of a woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, knowing that her babies will grow up without her.
“Got my foot out the window it’s a long way down, if you know the secret password there’s another way around,” Mandell explains in Be Together. “Am I waiting for a punishment for all the time I wasted?” she asks. In a career packed with some of the most captivating vocals ever recorded, this is one of Mandell’s most shattering.
Just Herself is just as harrowing, a resolutely waltzing account of someone who’s just as much of an outsider on the inside as she was before she got thrown in jail. Evelyn, a throwback to Mandell’s days as queen of late 90s/early zeros noir, underscores the fact that a large percentage of people in the prison-industrial complex – and the majority of the women there – aren’t criminals. They’re addicts, and people who sold them substances, some of which have been legalized in the years since many of these prisoners were locked up.
“Don’t ask when it was better – she would say that was never,” Mandell intones in Box in a Box, a catchy, gritty account of what could be solitary confinement, or addiction, or both. A brisk, subtly torchy backbeat number, Oh Mother could be a sideways tribute from a prisoner to a mom who managedto stay out of trouble – or the child of a prisoner admiring her mother’s resilience.
The gloom lifts in the quirky, upbeat, country-tinged What’s Your Handle (Radio Waves), following a thinly veiled escape theme that resurfaces a bit later in Air, a similarly bubbling, Americana-tinged number. Empty Locket, a duet with Jones, recounts a wistful, one-sided long-distance phone coversation.
Slowly swaying over Kevin Fitzgerald’s brushy drums and Ryan Feves’ bass, the country lament Ghost of a Girl is the closest thing here to Mandell’s signature noir Americana. The album close with another country waltz, the surreal, enigmatic title track. In a way, it’s no surprise that Mandell, an icon of noir since the late 90s, would end up behind bars – songwriting-wise, anyway. The most basic rule in noir is that ultimately there are none – and the consequences can be lethal.