Dark Lights Up
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Many established artists try to stay current by adding newer techniques into their music, but as Eleni Mandell tells us on the opening track to her 10th release, “I’m Old Fashioned.” She then proves it on a dozen sweet tunes, many of which seem like they could have been penned in the 30s and 40s, all acoustic and performed live in the studio.
Apparently inspired by the simplicity of Roger Miller’s recordings, Eleni and co-producer Sheldon Gomberg cut the songs in four days, keeping the vibe open and flowing. The attitude is fun, frisky and uncluttered, spotlighting Mandell’s supple voice and the jazzy underpinnings that have always played a supporting role in her recordings. She combines that with country, pop and a decidedly retro, somewhat childlike, style that goes down easy. Even darker titles such as “Town Called Heartache” glide by with the ease and grace of countrypolitan at its most innocent. “Butter Blonde and Chocolate Brown” and “Magic Pair of Shoes” are enticing in their purity and sheer joy of music that feels organic, unforced and entirely natural. Humorous songs such as “If You Wanna Get Kissed” are wonderfully underplayed with playful lyrics perfect for kids of all ages.
Many of these, especially the spirited “Cold Snap,” would make logical additions to the Patsy Cline catalog, another country singer who embraced simplicity. And the subtle jazz noir of “China Garden Buffet” seems like something Elvis Costello might have written in his “Almost Blue” period. When the lyrics turn serious, as they do on the reflection of age in “Old Lady,” the grace and sweetness of the music keeps it appropriate for lazy Sunday mornings sipping coffee.
Mandell has never worked in territory this consistently honeyed and lovely, so if the groove becomes a bit repetitious over 40 minutes, it’s still tough not to appreciate the craft and delightful vocal nuances that make this such a pleasure. Those looking for an edgier approach can cherry pick from her previous albums and leave the rest to enjoy the moon-June-spoon vibe of Dark Lights Up that sweeps us away to a calmer, simpler time.