Vancouver’s Dan Mangan is best known in his home country as a talented singer-songwriter with an occasionally gravelly and always expressive voice. In 2012, he won two JUNO Awards — including New Artist of the Year — for his album Oh Fortune. But despite the accolades and acclaim up north, he hasn’t made the same splash in the US. Chalk it up to poor marketing or bad luck, because songs like “Sold” and “Robots” off 2009’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice, along with Fortune opener “About as Helpful as You Can Be Without Being Any Help at All”, could’ve had substantial folk rock success stateside.
Now, Mangan has decided to scrap his bread-and-butter approach to folk earworms, form a band, and go in a knottier direction. His fourth album, Club Meds, is his first as Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, a Vancouver-based band featuring experimental musicians and past collaborators like Kenton Loewen, Gordon Grdina, and John Walsh. The result of a two-year hiatus and personal milestones like fatherhood, Club Meds finds Mangan in a completely different headspace compared to his previous efforts. Here, the songs are more fluid and less conventional, backed by looping synths, intricate drum patterns, and cascading guitars.
Musically, Mangan transitions nicely into this relatively experimental frame of mind. Opener “Offred” serves up a beautiful dose of guitars and synth-induced atmosphere, with Mangan’s distinctive baritone nicely blending into the chaos. Singles “Vessel” and “Mouthpiece” are the most straightforward tracks of the bunch. Despite the electric guitar arpeggios, “Mouthpiece” feels closest to Mangan’s earlier material, with rapidly strummed acoustic guitars and a fiery chorus. Other highlights include the title track, which boasts whammy pedal effects that make it feel like a moodier cousin of Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung”, and “Kitsch”, a slow-burner so mesmerizing it can be forgiven for initially off-putting lyrics like “Ladies in dresses/ Whores in the bedroom.”
Elsewhere, however, “War Spoils” is a droning snoozer that’s more distracting than mood-setting despite the pretty instrumental flourishes. And sometimes the arrangements feel like they’ve been taken too obviously out of the Grizzly Bear playbook: intricate, ominous chord progressions from uniquely tuned guitars. Despite its mixed offerings, Club Meds is a fascinating and unpredictable new direction from Mangan, surviving its own missteps. A few risks fail, but everything’s more interesting.
Essential Tracks: “Offred”, “Club Meds”, and “Kitsch”