Album Review: Dan Mangan + Blacksmith—“Club Meds”

By Carey Roach

As an artist, evolution does not usually occur without its challenges, but Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Dan Mangan has traipsed through what other artists experience as growing pains with relative ease and expertise. Club Meds manages to sound both familiar yet uncharted, and is perhaps Mangan’s most thoughtful and exciting record yet.

From the first strains of the album’s opener, “Offred,” it is easy to recognize that this is an entirely new Dan Mangan. The song begins with a distorted vocal ad-lib and Portishead-esque electronic tinkering, building into something that is a little dark and experimental, more reminiscent of The Darcys than Dan Mangan’s earlier works.

Quite obviously, things have changed since 2011’s Oh Fortune, which was Mangan’s last release. After a short hiatus, the band renamed themselves as Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, hoping to put more emphasis on the rest of the band members, and, with this name change, a stylistic change has also occurred. Club Meds is more of a collaborative effort than previous records. The instrumentals are more elaborate, now serving as something other than simple background music for Mangan’s lyrics.

Album art for Club Meds

Album art for Club Meds

The album demonstrates that it is about more than just Mangan now, and the group’s sound benefits from this; the songs sound more full and are generally more interesting. “New Skies” demonstrates how the band helps Mangan shift into new territory with a killer brass solo that makes the song dynamic in a way that would be impossible if it was performed solo.

Of course, Mangan’s powerful and rawly beautiful voice is still a significant highlight of the record, but we are reminded that the band’s talent extends beyond just that. “Mouthpiece” and “Vessel” will still remind listeners of classic Mangan, but with a new edge — there are still glimmers of folk within these songs, but they are more experimental and less predictable than some of his earlier work.

The only thing that is notably missing from Club Meds is Mangan’s trademark quirk. Gone are the charming lyrics about standing in customer service lines and coveting nice penmanship. But their absence is made up for with a newfound sense of thoughtfulness and depth. Mangan continues the political streak that he began on Oh Fortune, singing of economic and social inequalities on “XVI,” a track that draws poignant parallels between the French Revolution and the Occupy movement.

Club Meds is a dark but charming record that manages to make sweeping lyrical statements and introspective musial features without seeming self-indulgent — it includes the best parts of Mangan while still venturing into new creative territory.

Dan Mangan is no longer the cliché of a bearded, plaid-wearing, guitar-brandishing Canadian folk musician. Alongside his growing band, Mangan has matured as an artist, a change that is doing him many favours. He may still be bearded, but he brings a new complexity and sophistication to Club Meds, making for a truly wonderful album. (Arts & Crafts)

Listen: “Vessel”

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