Dan Mangan + Blacksmith
By: Mark Anthony Brennan
After a two year hiatus the Vancouver dark folkster returns as Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, which may leave the impression that he has recruited a new band. Such is not the case – the core of John Walsh, Gordon Grdina and Kenton Loewen has played with Mangan for years. But there is a recognition here that the members of Blacksmith are much more than a backing band. Although the lyrics and vocals of Mangan remain at the creative core, ‘Club Meds’ is in essence a musician’s album not just the work of a singer-songwriter. The record’s strength comes from the skilful construction and the intricate arrangements, where the subtle interplay of each player is critical to the overall fabric.
The opening track, “Offred”, starts with some intriguing electronic effect, as if to start you off in a bit of a spacey mood. But the band soon kicks in, serving notice that, despite some ethereal moments, this music is not all going to happen in your head – it’s very much a visceral affair, no matter how sophisticated things gets. When Mangan’s deep, earthy voice comes in it provide nice contrast to the near-ambience of the music. In a pattern that is often repeated throughout the album, the instrumentation is gradually layered on until our ears are treated to an elegantly textured mosaic of sound.
Although you may pick out some similarities to other artists – Peter Gabriel in “Vessel”, The National in “Mouthpiece”, Iron & Wine in “The Doll’s House/Pavlovia”, to name just three – overall ‘Club Meds’ almost creates a sub-genre of its own, not lending itself to an easy comparison to anyone else out there. Yes, it’s dark folk, but there are a lot of electronics and scratchy studio effects that you don’t often associate with that genre. Yes, Mangan is a singer-songwriter, but the instrumental passages often take centre stage with the listener being swept away and bedazzled by the superior craftsmanship of the musicians. (I should note here that Mangan also makes occasional good use of the brilliant Jesse Zubot, JP Carter and Tyson Naylor).
Mangan is a gifted lyricist and his prowess is on full display here as he takes universal themes, such as the agony of war and the dangers of modern media, and personalizes them, making his commentary accessible and never heavy-handed. However, this is but one facet to a richly rewarding album, which should stand up as one of 2015’s finest.