(SXSW 2015 flavoured!) Album Review: Dan Mangan + Blacksmith – Club Meds

By on Friday, 6th February 2015 at 12:00 pm

Dan Mangan + Blacksmith 'Club Meds' coverVancouver singer/songwriter Dan Mangan made his entrance onto the music scene in 2009 with the single ‘Robots’ before going on to win further recognition and two JUNO Awards for his 2012 album ‘Oh Fortune’. His current project, a fourth LP titled ‘Club Meds’, was released last month under the moniker of Dan Mangan + Blacksmith. According to Mangan’s Facebook page, Blacksmith comprises several of Mangan’s longtime collaborators, including “Gordon Grdina, Kenton Loewen, John Walsh (and often JP Carter, Tyson Naylor and Jesse Zubot)”. While Mangan has joined forces with the members of Blacksmith before, this project has a distinctly different sound from previous efforts.

If you’re looking for the rockabilly folk of ‘Robots’ (featured on 2010 LP ‘Nice, Nice, Very Nice’) or the uptempo anthemic pulse of ‘Post-War Blues’ from ‘Oh Fortune’, you might initially be a bit disappointed in the stark austerity of ‘Club Meds’. The album’s overall mood is bleak and brooding, the ponderous weight of its lyrical themes accented by heavy, pulsating rhythms and a sheer overlay of synths and backing vocals. On my first listen to ‘Club Meds’, I was immediately intrigued by opening track ‘Offred’, which is titled after the narrator in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I’ll admit that I haven’t touched ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ since I read it in my high school English class, but I do remember Offred’s tale as one of both oppression and hope. In the novel, Offred has been removed from her previous life by a military coup of the American government and forced to serve as a concubine under a new theocratic regime. Mangan’s lyrics directly reference the novel and its fictional resistance movement, whose success in rescuing Offred is unclear at the end of the story: “I still feel the cadence of a former life / I put faith in MAYDAY but it don’t feel right”. Literary references abound in indie rock music lately, but I am curious about why Mangan was drawn to this particular novel and its protagonist. The answer might possibly be found later on the album, in his lyrics to the acoustic guitar-flavoured ‘Mouthpiece’: “I want to breathe in all the ashes of the books they tried to burn / I want to feel the pages in my skin and understand the words.”

Like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Mangan’s ‘Club Meds’ is a narrative of perceived oppression and uncertain outcomes. Its dark, often rebellious lyrics and the mumbled drone of Mangan’s vocal delivery are accompanied by ominous guitar riffs, propulsive drumbeats and haunting vocal echoes. The studio version of standout single ‘Vessel’, one of the more uptempo tracks on the album, features a pounding, repeated keyboard figure and layered vocal lines in the chorus, “it takes a village to raise a fool / stop, wait, unhand me”. [youtube]http://youtu.be/3dAWPsrraBk[/youtube] Title track ‘Club Meds’ is a vertiginous wash of synthesizers and layered vocals, very loosely grounded by divergently wandering bass and guitar riffs. Amidst the hazy instrumentation, Mangan’s ironic lyrics eventually descend into a circular repeating phrase: “the daze is the war and the war is the game and the game is a fix and the fix is the daze…”. His weary, jaded tone lifts somewhat in final track ‘New Skies’, which attempts to end the album on a more optimistic note while still reflecting its moments of bitter despair. The brass solo in the instrumental section is at once mournful and uplifting against the quiet melancholy of Mangan’s vocal delivery in the verses.

Dan Mangan’s collaboration with Blacksmith has certainly led him in a more experimental direction, expanding his sonic palette beyond the typical folk rock, singer/songwriter bill of fare. While these recordings are somewhat mired in the depths of their somber subject matter, Mangan’s songwriting remains sharply cerebral and emotionally authentic. As with any expansive musical arrangement, translating the songs on ‘Club Meds’ to live performance might prove tricky, but it could also introduce a sense of motion and energy that is lacking on the album.


‘Club Meds’ is available now via City Slang Records. Dan Mangan + Blacksmith are scheduled to appear at SXSW 2015 in March, following a lengthy North American tour. A full listing of Dan Mangan + Blacksmith live dates dates can be found on Mangan’s official Web site. Previous TGTF coverage of Dan Mangan can be found here, including a new listing of UK tour dates for April 2015.

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