After 2011’s critical success Oh Fortune, Canadian musician Dan Mangan has taken a different approach on the follow-up. The JUNO winner’s fourth album is the first collaboration with Vancouver-based musicians including Gordon Grdina, Kenton Loewen and John Walsh, collectively known as Blacksmith.
The unsettling opener Offred starts off slowly, before shuffling from its slumber with its steady beat and low-pitched pulses. Mangan’s resigned vocals heighten the impact of despondent lines like ”not play dirty…not play nice’ and ‘what is it in all’, despite pleasant guitar finger-picking and a swinging rhythm section.
The sinister moments continue on the propulsive Mouthpiece, which is delivered with Mangan’s gruff brashness, with spooky vocal harmonies suggesting the supernatural. The apocalyptic, unnerving XVI‘s soft acoustic guitar, plaintive strings and Mangan’s despaired performance are further bogged down by lyrics like ‘crush us like I don’t care’. A Doll’s House may be a gentle but nearly incoherent lullaby as vocal lines go all over the place. However, it remains evocative as its oppressive production successfully evokes in listeners a sinking feeling, as if they were on a doomed ship. Even the pattering percussion, excitable guitar blips and utilitarian piano riff on Vessel a standout are dulled by Mangan’s combination of muffled cries and a deadpan delivery of a ‘takes a village to raise a fool’ hook.
Whilst the stripped War Spoils languidly fades into wintry oblivion, Forgetery brings back spark and focus to the album. This mid-tempo, with its stacked, hopeful harmonies and rich soundscapes hinting at both nature and the industrial, provides the collection’s first hopeful moment. The title track has Mangan and Blacksmith going Sgt Pepper, with its fairground-music-like intro, discordant brass and a hazy, almost regal bridge that are juxtaposed against Mangan’s raw vocals.
Kitsch sounds a bit directionless and pedestrian by comparison, with a bell ticking away like a railway crossing bell and riffs that roll like tumbleweed into the wilderness.
Penultimate track Pretty Good Joke is comically flatulent and expectedly sarcastic, with tape loops of brass cutting in and out amongst bright, sprightly synths and distorted, deadpan vocals. New Skies ends the album on a downcast yet forceful musical high, varying between loud and soft with exuberant trumpets and spacey, rousing guitar licks. The only missing is a dynamite soul vocalist like on Pink Floyd’s
Dan Mangan and Blacksmith have, for the most part, created a beautifully crafted soundtrack of doom, with moments of light here and there. Apart from a few middling moments, Club Meds is a rewarding listen for those who want to experience a aural, nocturnal journey.