After dark, my sweet

Eleni Mandell experiments in different genres with surprisingly good results.

Keri Carlson

Eleni Mandell had a good thing going.

With each of her albums, she has gathered more praise for her noir-cabaret styled songwriting, which won her the nickname “the female Tom Waits.” 2000’s “Thrill” is a walk through the back alleys of Hollywood and dingy smoke-filled night clubs. While the songs creep from subtle, yearning chimes to vigorous rumbles and clatters, it is Mandell’s vocals, leaping from the shadows, that make her music especially gripping. Her voice has a mean bite to it – a low raspy grit. But at the same time it’s heartfelt, passionate and capable of soaring gracefully.

As she reached 2002’s “Snakebite,” she sounded fully grown into her sound as though she could now wear her songs with real style.

But then, last year, without warning, Mandell made a country record. She didn’t just adding a bit of twang but rather released a full-fledged, Merle Haggard-covering country record that wouldn’t seem out of place at the Grand Ole Opry. It seemed like a crazy idea. She was just beginning to own her style, where people could instantly recognize a Mandell tune. But of course, Mandell knew exactly what she was doing. “Country for True Lovers” nails the good, classic country where only a couple of notes from a pedal steel guitar will make you weep. And once again, it is Mandell’s voice that is the highlight of the album.

Mandell’s latest EP, “Maybe, Yes,” now finds the chanteuse switching into another genre, jazz. This time around, the switch is not quite so shocking, especially given the ease with which the listener can settle into the first track. The title track opens with a mysterious accordion – as if she now walks the streets of Paris instead of Los Angeles or Nashville, Tenn. She makes herself right at home as “Maybe, Yes” carries the same, if somewhat retooled, sultry swagger as in past records. Mandell caresses the listener with her cooing lyrics: “Maybe doesn’t make me hot / Maybe doesn’t burn me up / Maybe doesn’t make me sigh / Maybe makes me wonder why.”

Mandell’s cover of “Detour Ahead” slowly drives down a smooth road as a delicate guitar played like a harp and brushed drum beats lazily linger behind. “Detour” is lovely but sounds too standard for Mandell. You want the drive to hit a gravel road or at least bounce over a couple of potholes. Her voice does not carry the same edge as usual, which fits fine with the theme of the song but proves Mandell originals are the true treat of the EP. The quirky swing of “Light in Atlanta” shows off Mandell’s gift for the unconventional.

However, her rendition of the jazz classic “I’m Thru with Love” is stunning. Mandell’s vocals have never captured so much pain in just the opening line.

Eleni Mandell has certainly taken some huge steps from where she began. However, “Maybe, Yes” contains many of the same dark moods as her earlier records. As she ventures out into the world, there is a part of her songwriting that remains rooted. So no matter how far she travels, she won’t be leaving fans behind.