Arts and Crafts, 2015
Vancouver native Dan Mangan has quietly evolved into one of Canada’s premier indie troubadours.
From the quiet, unassuming indie-folk of his 2003 debut EP All at Once, to the orchestral swells of 2011’s Juno Award winning Oh Fortune, we have seen Mangan gradually add layers to his singer-songwriter balladry. With the highly-anticipated release of Club Meds—the first album credited to Dan Mangan + Blacksmith—we see his sound move further away from the established template he has worked with over the past decade.
Mangan is now positioned as a bandleader rather than solo artist, freeing him and his band to experiment with soundscapes and song structures not necessarily found in his prior work. The reverb soaked, mid-tempo pieces that dominate the album are reminiscent of legendary former label mate Broken Social Scene’s more atmospheric work. These ambient tendencies are tempered by Mangan’s knack for witty lyricism and fat-free composition, ensuring punch isn’t sacrificed for moodiness. This carries the album through some of its duller moments.
Album opener Offred’s wistful electronics and lumbering, off kilter beat complement the sparse, emotive guitars and desperate vocals that fill out the mesmerizing track. It sets the tone for the rest of the record— a decidedly introspective affair—letting audiences know they shouldn’t expect another Robots or Road Regrets. Vessels unfolds similarly, with a huge amorphous piano riff acting as lede while a well-placed horn and guitar freak-out acts as kicker; an outstanding, moody slow burn. Mouthpiece—the most conventional track on the album—follows. Its shimmering, dense reverb, interlocking lead lines, and cutting gang vocals enhance the relentless guitar and drum attack evoking fear, anxiety, and uncertainty more successfully than Mangan has on prior records.
The album’s middle section is where Mangan and company fall flat at times. The pacing tends to drag, promising starts languishing in repetition or overreach. Kitsch strives for nuance and gradual progression, but crushes itself under the weight of its own ambitions. The clever guitar lead and gravelly vocals end up buried below a cacophony of repetition and messy mixing. The reach is admirable, but the result is an unsatisfying, mediocre dirge. War Spoils similarly flounders, Mangan’s vocals feeling distant behind the foreboding, droning atmosphere. It’s like Godspeed You! Black Emperor with none of the anticipation or emotional crescendo.
However, these missteps bring us to the thrilling conclusion of the album. The eerily aloof synth lines of the title track flow into the noisy, dynamic electronics and nervous rhythms of Pretty Good Joke, but the true peak of the record comes at its close. New Skies is a sprawling work, moving from an unassuming intro to a breathtaking climax of swirling horns and guitar that feels like the demons of Mangan’s soul being violently exorcised. The instrumental cluster-fuck and disorienting emotional rawness of the track is oddly reminiscent of 30, closer of Danny Brown’s brilliant 2011 album XXX. The appeal of emotional authenticity transcends genre taste, tradition, and tendency; it is what connects all great art.
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith have put together an album that, while imperfect, manages to move the sounds we associate with Mangan in brave new directions. It may alienate some fans, making it even more admirable. It’s boring when artists sit on their haunches; content to wallow in sameness and mediocrity, floating through their careers on autopilot. Club Meds is Dan Mangan’s rejection of stagnancy; a successful one at that. He and his band have managed to make one of the nascent year’s finest Canadian indie albums; besting anything Mangan has done before in the process. Adventure is a beautiful thing when it turns out well.
By Mike Westwick
Connect with Mike on Twitter @westwick_m