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Eleni Mandell's California cabaret-rock visions

"I grew up playing violin and piano," says Los Angeles native Eleni Mandell, "but I learned guitar because I wanted to be in band like X."

Although still working as a solo artist, Mandell has created two superlative albums, 1998's Wishbone and last year's Thrill, both glistening with dark lyrical poetry in the spirit of X's Exene Cervenka. She even obtained the services of X's drummer D.J. Bonebrake for a guest appearance on Thrill. But while X delivered their potent words atop blazing, overdriven punk sounds, Mandell favors gentler arrangements which often evoke the cabaret song-cycles of Kurt Weill.

Distinguished by a rich, full voice that simultaneously recalls the earthiness of Pasty Cline and the exoticism of Marlene Dietrich, Mandell sings with a delivery and phrasing so deliciously complex that her records beg constant replaying. Thrill's "1970 Red Chevelle," for example, seems at first to be a hot rod song, but there's a hint of something suspiciously like mockery rumbling beneath its erotic celebration of speed and high-octane performance. Is the song partly sarcastic, perhaps?

"Oh yeah," Mandell admits. "Completely. When I wrote that, I was dating a guy who was a car dealer. It's mocking his materialism. But I'm a fan of subtlety. I don't write entirely literally." She points to "Vision of Johanna" from Bob Dylan's 1966 Blonde on Blonde as an example of her ideal type of song. "You can't translate everything in it," she says, "but you get a feeling for it. My songs give you a feeling like that, a feeling that may be different for one person than for another. I like things to be ambiguous."

Mandell is less ambiguous about her prospects for a major label deal. "I am independent, and I probably always will be," she announces, "although I tried to go through the protocol in L.A., to play showcases and deal with A&R people."

Several years ago, under the guidance of scene fixture Chuck E. Weiss, Mandell landed a demo deal with DreamWorks. But when the label took a pass on the results, she decided to release them herself. "I felt like I could make a good record," she recalls, "and I was planning to work on it with [producer] Jon Brion anyway, so we decided just to go ahead." The result was the critically lauded Wishbone, which she issued on Mr. Charles Records, her own indie label named in honor of Weiss. "Chuck mentored me through, and I originally wanted to call it Charles Records, but when I told him about that, he said, 'No, Mister Charles.'" She sighs. "That sounds like a gay hairdresser."

Mandell expresses bemusement over the broad of range of descriptions which reviewers have applied to her eclectic recordings. "Just recently I was called a 'moody pop siren,'" she recalls. "That's certainly not 'pop' as pop-u-lar. The music I always loved -- artists like X and Tom Waits -- had major label support, even though it was not played on the radio. I didn't realize, though, that this meant when I grew up and had a career like theirs, I was still going to have to be a waitress." She pauses and adds, "I do think it's worth it, though. I think people who have to support themselves with their art eventually lose focus and aren't writing what they want to write."

Not surprisingly for a recording artist based in L.A., Mandell has placed songs in several movies, including Heavy (1995), Boys (1996), Hit Me (1996), Palmetto (1998) and Johnny Skidmarks (1998). However, it wasn't until her material appeared in the just-released Brendan Fraser comedy Monkey Bone that she benefited from the exposure. "It's the first time you can really hear the songs," she notes. "There's one in Monkey Bone called 'Fall Away' that isn't on any of my records. It's at the tail end of the closing credits. I don't put too much weight on it, but I've gotten some inquiries based on that."

For non-industry types or moviegoers wanting to hear Mandell's tunes, she currently is performing solo on tour. "When I'm in L.A., I use some of the guys on the record and we play as a trio," she says, "just me and my guitar, with drums and bass. Playing solo is completely different. I feel a lot more vulnerable, and it makes it a more personal experience all around. I can hear better and sing better -- more dynamically -- than when I'm fighting to be heard over drums. I love both, but out on the road I don't want to feel I have to rely on anybody else."

She laughs and adds dryly, "I will, however, be accepting donations for my band fund."

Eleni Mandell performs at the Earl Thurs., March 29. Show time is 10 p.m. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 404-522-3950.

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