Don’t be misled by the title track or the one that follows it (“God Is Love”) off of Eleni Mandell’s latest album. Ms. Mandell is not a pop star. But she can do a damn good impression of one. In fact, “Artificial Fire,” descends slowly, beginning with the funkiest, most optimistic track, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, becoming increasingly experimental. Comparisons to contemporaries are inevitable. Does she sound a bit like LilyAllenKateNashReginaSpektorEtc.? Yes. Especially on songs like “Tiny Waist.” The hipster-girl sound that, in my view, derives from the likes of Tori Amos and Throwing Muses, is pervasive in just about every new female singer-songwriter who doesn’t try to sound like Avril or Kelly C. But Ms. Mandell has enough skill as a musician that she doesn’t need to rely on her sexy voice or agile wordplay (though she’s got more than enough of both). On songs like “Personal,” she proves that she can write both melody and riff—and it’s a string-section riff, no less—to create a catchy, moving, and, yes, personal hit song.
Mandell more than enough of an original sound, and her lyrics aren’t snide, aggressive, or cynical, that she rises to the top of the currently abundant crop. In turns witty, moving, bouncy, and provocative, “Artificial Fire” is a can’t-miss record that gets my highest recommendation.