Dan Mangan is one busy guy. He’s a member of an increasingly large community north of the border, right at the front end of, if you will, Canadiana, a redoubtable second or third wave of artists following on from Cohen, Young and Mitchell. Hallowed company? Yes, but Mangan is worth the compliment. He’s put together a solid body of work, well worth checking out, since starting out in the mid-noughties. Whether his solo acoustica or his more experimental ensemble work, where he finds the join between avant-garde and electronica, he has also found time to write soundtrack music and to be a contributing arts editor to the Canadian version of UK newspaper the Guardian.
An accomplished songwriter himself, he has an interesting take on cover versions: “It’s a matter of sanity. I get sick of the same taste in my mouth and I need to sing someone else’s song to cleanse my palate.” And glad we are he does, as it means the release of Thief. This is a collection of palate cleansers he has slipped out over the past few years, together with some new.
No stranger to these pages, Mangan’s sublime take on R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion” got two mentions here last year, with a credible 35 in the best of year listing and 3 in the best ever R.E.M. covers. (Personally, I’d have gone higher.) It is with this song that Thief opens, sounding, if anything, better a year on. The combination of guitar, piano and Mangan’s multi-tracked voice remain a delight, with the beats and synthetic strings dipping in and out of the mix at just the right moments.
You may be unfamiliar with Cake’s “Love You Madly,” a bouncing and Talking Headlike declaration of love. Mangan strips it back into a more thoughtful rumination, his voice a warm emulsion of intent, as the arrangement gradually builds. Indie favorites Neutral Milk Hotel arguably occupy a similar area to some of Mangan’s compositional styles, but all temptation toward embellishment is avoided here, with “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” offering only some whistling over his guitar and voice. Stunningly so.
You’ll be getting some idea of his mindset and influences, as even one of the jauntier of Elliott Smith’s songs, “Waltz No. 2,” is tackled just a little more bleakly. The chilling lyric here is pulled out all the more by the relatively upbeat backing from fellow Canadians, Zeus.
By now you’ll probably be needing a lift, and John Hiatt’s hymn of hope “Have a Little Faith in Me,” the other best-known song in this selection, provides just that. More mournful and less beseeching than most of the other available versions, it feels and sounds less of the performance other singers have given it, and is all the better for that.
A couple of songs by female artists follow, Robyn’s “Hang with Me” and “Ex-Factor” by Lauryn Hill. The former might have you back in your cups, so desolate is the arrangement, drawing to mind some of the darker output of Damien Jurado, and has a whole heap more pathos than Robyn ever managed. Sticking with the pervading mood of misery, Mangan keeps only the faintest memory, in the percussion, of Ms. Hill’s plea to an ex, actually one of weaker tracks on Thief.
As for the weakest track, that dubious honor is reserved for “Stairway.” Here, Mangan swaps the annoyingness of Yukon Blonde’s original for an echo-drenched plod. File under not for me, a necessary skip forward to the closer, Bob Marley’s “Chances Are,” proving welcome. The song, an early deep cut from 1968, betraying Marley’s origins in street corner style harmony singing, is a beauty in its own right. Here, in duet with Broken Social Scene’s Amy Millan, it carries a mood of the Righteous Brothers, the setting a warped memory of early 60s production tropes. Spookily magnificent, and a fitting finale.
Thief track listing:
Losing My Religion (R.E.M cover)
Love You Madly (Cake cover)
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel cover)
Waltz No. 2 (XO) (Elliott Smith cover)
Have A Little Faith In Me (John Hiatt cover
Hang With Me (Robyn cover)
Ex-Factor (Lauryn Hill cover)
Stairway (Yukon Blonde cover)
Chances Are (feat. Amy Millan) (Bob Marley cover)