Vancouver's Dan Mangan aiming for a second fluke

With new CD, the songwriter's pushing for something noisier, subtler and deeper. He's got more on his mind lyrically, too.

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The comfortable obscurity -- and the luxury of working out his new material on the road - has passed for Vancouver songwriter Dan Mangan.

But his new CD was worth the loss.

The Canadian Press has the story:

TORONTO -- A little over a year ago, Dan Mangan remembers playing a show in Norman, Oklahoma to a "crowd'' -- to use the term loosely -- of about seven people.

As is typical of the genial Vancouver singer-songwriter, he cheerfully decided to interpret the sparsely attended gig as a timely break, and not as a humiliation. He had new songs swirling around in his brain that he hadn't had the chance to work through with his band, so the show morphed into a much-needed impromptu rehearsal.

"I thought: 'This is a perfect opportunity,''' Mangan said during a recent interview on a sunny Toronto patio. "You don't ever get a chance to rehearse on the road because you're travelling all the time and you're playing gigs.

"So basically, I would just start playing a song that the band had never heard, and then they'd catch up.''

And with that -- thanks to the apathy of a nearly empty club and the dexterity of Mangan's band -- Mangan began to form the blueprint for "Oh Fortune,'' which hits stores Tuesday.

You see, by then it was becoming pretty uncommon for Mangan to play to barren bars.

Sure, Mangan was comfortably ensconced in obscurity when he released his sophomore album, "Nice, Nice, Very Nice,'' only a year earlier in August 2009.

But that didn't last long.

A month after the record dropped, Mangan took artist of the year honours at the XM Verge Awards. The following May, he signed with the influential Canadian indie imprint Arts & Crafts, which re-released his album in North America. And that summer, Mangan's album was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize alongside Broken Social Scene, Tegan and Sara and eventual winners Karkwa.

Suddenly, Mangan was mingling with the country's indie elite. While the 28-year-old had toured relentlessly for years prior to his emergence, this all seemed to come together rather quickly.

And as a result, "Nice, Nice, Very Nice'' wasn't a particularly easy act to follow.

"On some level (with that album), we kind of fluked out because there wasn't that much pressure behind it. If it flopped, no one would have cared because no one knew who I was anyways,'' said Mangan as he sipped a bottle of lager.

"There was a little more pressure this time around. We're signed to a really great, well-known record label, and I have like a team now -- I have an agent, and a publicist, and all these things.

"So in that sense, there are people who are anticipating it. But I felt like if we just tried to take something that worked and do it again, it was going to end up being less honest and less good. And it's sort of like, if we fluked out before, maybe we can fluke out again.''

And so Mangan changed course fairly drastically.

While "Nice, Nice'' was very much a solo affair, "Oh Fortune'' was almost entirely crafted with Mangan's band present, and it shows.

Swooning opener "About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All'' waltzes on a lush bed of strings, the brittle guitars of 'Starts With Them, Ends With Us'' are buoyed by a skittering bed of percussion and, eventually, helium-filled horns, while the propulsive "Post-War Blues'' -- which Mangan calls the poppiest song he's written -- actually rocks, with a furious tightrope riff presiding over a chaotic chorus.

While Mangan acknowledges that the new record "isn't remotely singer-songwriter-y,'' he said that he didn't intentionally try to distance himself from his reputation-forming last album.

"I'd like to say we weren't running from something so much as just aiming toward something,'' he said. "But it is a noisier, more subtle and deeper record.''

Mangan had more on his mind lyrically, too. (It would be a mistake to expect anything along the lines of Mangan's wistful, impossibly cute singalong breakthrough "Robots,'' for instance).

Inspired by his relentless travelling, Mangan wrote about damaged veterans returning from war ("Post-War Blues''), about the people living their lives amid the desolate stretches of Ontario highway ("Oh Fortune'') and about hopeless desperation ("Leaves, Trees, Forest'').

But while the subject matter was heavy, he didn't necessarily want the record's sound to reflect that.

"It's sad but it's hopeful. And it's morose but it's totally upbeat and kicking. That intrigues me.''

Mangan has always projected an easygoing affability -- his lyrics cast him as the earnest everyman, a role made more convincing by his cheerful, round face and his fatherly beard (he notes that it's "hilarious'' how many times his facial hair has been mentioned in articles -- mea culpa, Dan).

So given his charming demeanour, as well as his D.I.Y. rise to acclaim and inoffensive tunes, Mangan hasn't found himself the target of many critical barbs. But as "Nice, Nice'' seemed to be gaining steam toward Polaris consideration, Mangan began experiencing something close to a backlash.

In a blog post, well-respected radio host Alan Cross nicknamed Mangan's record "Dull, Dull, Very Dull,'' while the Globe & Mail published a column that called Mangan's tunes "unmemorable'' and ran with the headline: "An indie emperor with no clothes.''

Mangan read that review on his phone while touring, and dubbed it the "harshest piece of press'' that had ever been written about him.

Then he wore it as a badge of honour.

"We had really thrived as the underdog. I had spent so much time as the 'nobody knows who you are, D.I.Y., indie guy' -- and everyone wants to help that guy out,'' Mangan said.

"And then once you get to the point where you're worth trashing, it was kind of an amazing thing.''

When Mangan's asked about his rise, he responds with a familiar cliche -- he says he knocked on thousands of doors before any started opening. But once they did creak open, he started to feel some momentum, and from there, "buzz and hype and all those things.''

"But the thing is,'' he continues, "buzz and hype are fleeting. Buzz and hype, they go away.''

So, how does Mangan plan to hold on? And what expectations does he have for "Oh Fortune''?

Well, with a nod to the record's title, Mangan seems to think that a positive outcome might require a little bit of luck.

"It's a very different (situation),'' he said. "When I made the last record, I had no management, hardly a label, no agent, no publicist. Now there's all of those things, and in Europe, and in the States, and in Australia.

"The other one, we were still kicking down doors, and most of those doors are open now. I think it depends on what people think of it. And certainly, I can only approach it with a very defeatist expectation. I expect that we'll continue to grind it out and play really small grassroots shows overseas for a while.

"But who knows. Anything's possible and sometimes you catch breaks and sometimes you don't. I've said it before, but I keep my expectations wonderfully low, which allows me to be really happy and pleased about everything that happens.''

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