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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.

Eleni Mandell Brings Her Hauntingly Wistful New Album to the Mercury

More elusive than Neko Case but just as revered in noir music circles, Eleni Mandell has enchanted listeners with her distant, memtholated allure and songs that bridge the gap between countrypolitan, torchy saloon blues and jazz since right around the turn of the century. If you were in New York back then, there wasn’t a single cool bar in town, from Max Fish, to O’Connor’s, to Hank’s Saloon, that didn’t have Mandell’s cd’s on the jukebox (remember those things?). Roughly fifteen years later, Mandell’s still putting her individualistic spin on retro sounds from the 50s and 60s. Her latest album, Dark Lights Up – streaming at Spotify – might be her best ever. Overall, Mandell tends to mutes the chill in favor of wary warmth – it’s a record for guardedly optimistic survivors. She’s currently touring it with a New York stop tonight, August 2 at around 8 PM at the Mercury. Cover is $10 and considering how devoted her following is, you might want to get there early.

The band on the album is fantastic. Mandell’s not-so-secret weapon is pianist Nate Walcott, with his glimmering blend of ragtime, slip-key C&W and jazz – to top it off, he also adds jaunty trumpet and flugelhorn. Jake Blanton plays lead acoustic guitar over the tasteful, subtle rhythm section of bassist Ryan Feves and drummer Mike Green. The first song, I’m Old Fashioned, sets the stage, both amusing and in its own unselfconscious way, pretty chilling. See, Mandell is oldschool: she likes to go into the bank and say hit to the teller, writes thank-you notes with pen and paper, reads the newspaper and picks the phone off the receiver when she takes a call. Has the world really changed so much since she released her cult classic debut album, Wishbone, in 1999? Yup.

What Love Can Do, the title track of sorts, has Walcott working gorgeously nocturnal, twinkling lines underneath Mandell’s bittersweet tale of longing and occasional redemption. She raises the angst level on the sad waltz Someone to Love – just think, maybe even Eleni Mandell might have stood in the back of the room some lonely night, hoping that someone would notice her. By contrast, the coolly blithe Cold Snap  puts a bouncy spin on rejection and disappointment, a classic dichotomy in Mandell’s work. It also doesn’t exactly paint her native Los Angeles as a mecca for single people.

The gorgeously simmering China Garden Buffet is a musical Edward Hopper tableau, an uneasily balmy, improbable portrait of an unlikely liaison. Town Called Heartache, with its allusively tricky metrics and clever wordplay, wouldn’t be out of place in the Paula Carino songbook. Old Lady sets elegant Rachelle Garniez-esque wistfulness to a bouncy Beatlesque tune: “I’ll clean up your grandkids and sleep in the back room,” Mandell muses.

Magic Pair of Shoes looks back to pensively late 50s/early 60s Patsy Cline/Owen Bradley countrypolitan balladry. If You Wanna Get Kissed is a coyly hilarious, low-key take on classic honkytonk; likewise, the strolling Baby Don’t Call works a lowlit piano boogie groove. Butter Blonde and Chocolate Brown offers a charming portrait of Mandell’s gradeschool-age daughter and son, artfully casting them as adults. The album’s final cut, Do It Again – an original, not the Steely Dan classic – is its most optimistic. After a grand total of ten albums, this might well be Mandell’s best. You’ll see this one on the best albums of 2015 page here in a few months if we’re all still here.