Thrifty excess

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Garage sale po-mo she-blues troubadour Eleni Mandell sent a quiet ripple through indie circles with down-but-not-out storytelling on her 1998 DIY debut, Wishbone.

We heard echoes of PJ Harvey and Liz Phair (as filtered through such songwriters as Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits) in Mandell’s gutter-gazing musical wanderings. With the follow-up, Thrill, these patron saints return to provide a reference point for the casual listener. But Mandell manages a slippery balancing act between conjuring songwriting’s emotionally bare, noir luminaries and carefully and exuberantly crafting and expressing her own idiosyncratic take on love, life and Los Angeles from the thrift-score side of the tracks. Mandell’s biting, crisply ruminative lyrics describe a world populated by gender friction, road-weary emotional traction and languid throwbacks to a time when people connected face-to-face over big mugs of thick black coffee in the haze of Sunday morning-after cigarette smoke. She often seems in cahoots with a scheme to smuggle the dark emotional and cultural baggage of Bertolt Brecht into LAX. And she gets away with it.

Where Mandell puts distance between herself and the Harveys and Phairs is in the subtle rhythmic interplay and the emphasis on percussion that keeps such cuts as “He Thinks He’s in Love,” “1970 Red Chevelle” and other gems well this side of the singer-songwriter ghetto.

Her protagonists give in, but never give up and Mandell’s voice is an emotional, deeply resonant vehicle for their stories. You may get a familiar Thrill (pardon the pun), but Mandell is her own woman. May we expect many bittersweet, unhappy returns from this angel of the low-rent district.

E-mail Chris Handyside at [email protected].

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