Maybe, Yes (Heart of a Champion Records)
By: Brian Barr
The choice to offer this brief jazz outing as an online-only affair is a tactful business move. But then, as soon as the 23-minute EP comes to a close it's hard to not ask for more. So, why bother reviewing an EP that can't even be purchased in-store? Well, because it's Eleni Mandell and to avoid even her most minor musical detours is nearly criminal.
As Mandell solidly proved on last years' Country For True Lovers, she is an able-bodied genre-hopper. Of course, I hesitate to diminish her blossoming abilities to that of a novelty act, but with Maybe, Yes it's impossible to ignore this dramatic style shift.
Since the late-90s, Mandell has been churning out critically praised records that draw comparisons to the noir-inflected work of Andrew Weill, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey. Each record was better than the previous and showed a determined and developing artist. But Country For True Lovers offered something more significant than the rest. While it opened Mandell up to a new audience (most notably the No Depression crowd), a theme began to unravel. The songs were growing simpler, more focused and mature. And as Maybe, Yes shows, the maturity kick was not a one-time deal.
Mandell will no doubt stress that this EP was strictly for fun, that there was no intention of its reaching a mass audience. However, as Mandell sprinkles her recent live shows with selected cuts from this EP, she has (perhaps unintentionally) stacked them up with the best of her back catalog. And the songs certainly hold their own, maybe even carrying more weight than the rest in their smoky intrigue.
Joined by her current tour bassist Ryan Feves and an assembly of others including guitarist Woody Jackson, drummer Kevin Fitzgerald, organist Greg Kurstin and accordionist Mike Bolger, Mandell has been successful in evoking the dimly lit, late night smoothness of classic jazz records. For inspiration, she seems to have drawn from French gypsy jazz as well as the small group sessions of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. It's Mandell's strength at vocal theatrics that add to the vividness of the lyrics. "I'm a daisy/laughing when the wind is blown," she sings on "Better When You're Near" and offers the unabashed Basement Tapes silliness "Maybe he doesn't turn me on/maybe he's not filet mignon," from the impossibly catchy title track.
Like a late-1960s Dylan, Mandell seems to have abandoned angst in favor of mining adult complexities. With a full-length titled Afternoon due out in April, one can only hope Mandell has continued with this theme. Until then, fans will have to get online or catch her on tour, for ample proof of this burgeoning woman's shift into adulthood.