Album Review: Dan Mangan – Nice, Nice, Very Nice (Polaris Prize nominee)

August 23, 2010
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This review is part of our series of reviews of the shortlisted 2010 Polaris Prize albums. The Polaris Prize is a Canadian music prize picked on a basis of artistic merit alone, and not commercial success. As a result, the long list tends to turn out some of the best music you may have never heard of before. But this year the  short list, as well as shining a little spotlight on some promising newcomers, reflects the work of a few veterans.

Dan Mangan - Nice, Nice, Very NiceTitle: Nice, Nice, Very Nice
Artist: Dan Mangan
Label: Arts & Crafts/ABC/FUM
Released: 11 August 2009
In one word: Congenial

The Fifty-third Calypso [ 2 ]

Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen–
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice–
So many different people
In the same device.

–  Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

If you were to go onto the website for Canadian music label Arts & Crafts, you would see that the top 2 albums by sales right now are Forgiveness Rock Record, and the Forced to Love/ All to All single. Third in popularity, after the latest LP and EP from Broken Social Scene, is Dan Mangan with his first recording on this label.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice was first released onto the File Under Music label (FUM) August 11, 2009. 364 days and some critical acclaim later, it was rereleased by the Toronto label Arts & Crafts for distribution in the states.

A few days ago on August 20th, Dan Mangan marked his album’s stateside release with a tour that’ll take him through the States, The UK, and finally Canada before wrapping up in early December. Mangan is no stranger touring though. His first LP Postcards and Daydreaming was released independently in 2005 (later on FUM/ABC-Universal), and he hasn’t stopped touring since.

The first song on the album “Road Regrets” is about that, being on the road more than being home. It’s one of the louder songs on the album, and it’s a bittersweet one which sets the tone of the album. It’s the first single off of the LP (since the 2,3, and 4 songs appear as singles on a teaser EP) and it’s a good one for bringing the attention of the listener to one of Dan’s stronger sides, his songwriting. “It’s all business in the left hand lane. Drive there and then drive back again. Escape can’t be the only way, to escape. So I’ve gotten used to coffee sweats. Still getting used to road regrets. I took you up on all your threats, to leave.”

The next 3 songs are “Robots”, “The Indie Queens are Waiting”, and “Sold”.  Six months before the release of the LP, these songs were released as tracks 1,2, and 3 on an EP called Roboteering- as well as 2 others which are not included on Nice, Nice, Very Nice. “Robots” is catchy song with a silly music video where Mangan is captain of the yellow gang, who faces the captain of purple gang in a robot battle. It has nothing to do with the song, which seems to be about trying to not waste your emotions, but losing them as a result. And its not a cool enough video to make up for the fact that it doesn’t make sense. “The Indie Queens Are Waiting” takes us downtempo for a really clever tune that pokes fun of the indie kids, sitting around, waiting, and asking themselves “are we cool now?” It was the song that initially won me over to the album the first time I played it through. But it’s the fourth song on the album, “Sold”, that still gets me that 13th, 14th, 15th listen through. It’s quick, uptempo folk song that features handclapping while cheery singing about selling out for the so-called “good life”.

These three songs, as well as the opening track form the strongest part of the album. They’re earnest, but still hopeful, and they pack the most energy and feature some of the best songwriting on the album.

Up next are “Fair Verona” and “You Silly Git”. “Fair Verona” is a conundrum. On one hand, the lyrics are the kind of beautiful that the cliche would be tempted to put the word “hauntingly” in front of. On the other hand, it’s reminiscent of Broken Social Scene, and this makes me uneasy.

I love Broken Social Scene, they’re one of my all-time favourite Canadian bands,  so how is it possibly be bad that Mangan sounds a bit like them?

If Nice, Nice, Very Nice only sounded like Broken Social Scene, maybe I wouldn’t have such a problem with it. But as much as I enjoy the songwriting on Nice, Nice, Very Nice – and it sure is clever – this album just sounds like so many other albums and artists I’ve heard before. “Road Regrets” reminds me of Joel Plaskett’s album Three, one artist who surprisingly lost out on the XM Radio Verge Music award to Mangan earlier this year. It’s not just my ears though. On Nice, Nice, Very Nice, Mangan admits to influences of Chad VanGaaleen, Bon Iver, and Radiohead. As a fellow admirer of all three bands, it was easy to hear the musical influences- and I think the originality of this album suffers for it.

Yes, there are a few more strong songs on the album before it concludes. I took the time to rate “Tina’s Glorious Comeback”, “Some People”, and “Basket” on my itunes so I’m not going to act like I wasn’t interested in them. I think Mangan’s songwriting shows promise and I’d be interested to see how it develops.

But although there might be some that are ready to say that Mangan is a new Joel Plaskett, or Broken Social Scene, or Chad VanGaaleen, or Bon Iver- I say, hold your horses. Those releases last year by Joel Plaskett, Chad VanGaaleen, and Bon Iver were pretty original releases- and a year later, they have proved their place in my record collection. I’m still waiting for Mangan to come good on the investment.

I don’t know if he’ll make the cut though, because this album’s biggest crime is that it sounds generic. I worry that it’s genericness is part of what makes it so easy to listen to that first time through, and that it would make it so appealing to people who might be listening to indie for the first time. I think that’s a valid concern, it’s 11 years after Broken Social Scene formed, and it seems like indie rock and pop is garnering more and more attention all the time. I know it’s only a matter of time before any underground genre becomes mainstream and gets marketed to teenyboppers before becoming as dead as grunge- and when I hear this recording I wonder if it’s already starting? Has the downfall of indie started while I wasn’t paying attention?

As I question Mangan’s merits on this album, its garnering a lot of attention to be a favourite to win this prize. As for me, I’m three albums into this race for the Polaris Prize- still searching for a favourite.

© Natascha Malta, Music Vice

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