After an eight-year wait since last album, it’d be wrong to say Leslie Mendelson has blasted back onto the scene. It’s more of a silhouetted slink through the back door and into the spotlight. Though the ten tracks of ‘Love & Murder’ range from eight years old to brand new, they’re all linked by the same style. Where Mendelson’s critically-acclaimed debut ‘Swan Feathers’ was bright, ‘Love & Murder’ is a dark, dangerous affair. This is Mendelson’s ‘Empire Strikes Back’, with emotional highs to match.
Mendelson has repeatedly called the new album her ‘Murder ballads record’. That holds up, not just in the sly lyrical references to Nick Cave but in the records gothic-noir aesthetic. From her beginnings as a modern-day Carole King, Mendelson now inhabits the deep recesses of the psyche where the likes of Sharon Van Etten and Jesca Hoop dwell. Shadowy as Humphrey Bogart’s showreel, and slow-simmered in eight years of melancholy and self-doubt.
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‘Love & Murder’s sparse production is the foundation. With minimal percussion and everything hushed, producer Mark Howard mixes it so every breath and note resounds like a raindrop in a cavern. Despite a shift to minor and macabre, Mendelson still strikes the same balance between classic piano singer-songwriter and supernatural blues. Opener ‘Jericho’ hits the latter; a mandolin-led spiritual with gospel choir harmonies. Meanwhile ‘Chasing The Thrill’, embraces a jagged electric guitar for something between late Lynyrd Skynyrd and a Bond theme. Yet Mendelson’s New York roots are still strong. ‘Coney Island’ is a bittersweet piano ballad in line with her ‘Swan Feathers’ work, as is ‘Crazy’, which also enjoys a mean string section. Weaved together by the raincloud mood and Mendelson’s tough-but-tender vocals, it all makes for one hell of a thematic collection.
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‘Love & Murder’ also features a trio of covers. The highest profile is a duet with The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir on Roy Orbison’s ‘Blue Bayou’. In true Dead style it’s more of a jam than a rehearsed performance; both sing, both play. It’s a cheerful oasis in a pretty raw release, and shows some of the playfulness that lies at the heart of Mendelson’s career. There’s also a ukulele version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like A Woman’, with Mendelson having a predictable field day breathing life into the poetic lyrics, and a stripped-back rendition of country standard ‘Cry Cry Darlin’ that’d have any crowd of hardcase desperado’s blubbing into their bourbons.
Ultimately, ‘Love & Murder’ is a triumphant return to business for Leslie Mendelson. Or at least, as triumphant as ten intimate ballads can be. Her vocals have never sounded stronger, her songwriting has taken a stylized turn, but the elements that made her such a name eight years ago are still very much in evidence. To coin a phrase, Leslie Mendelson strikes back.