DAN MANGAN IS A WONDERFUL THEIF (Review)
Vancouver-based indie-rock artist Dan Mangan has just released a new album called, Theif. Theif is a collection of cover songs Mangan has recorded over the years; songs originally written and recorded by some of the arguable music greats. The album includes incredibly thoughtful interpretations of songs by artists from Lauren Hill to John Hiatt. Theif is available now on all major streaming platforms and after a couple of times through on repeat, it’s for sure worth checking out, if for nothing else than the endlessly wonderful nostalgia dose.
There’s something about cover songs. Something I didn’t always get. I hated cover songs when I was in my twenties, but as I move (gracefully) through my thirties I’ve come to have a massive appreciation for cover songs that are done thoroughly, artfully, and originally. I say originally because there is nothing worse than a cover intended to sound exactly like the original. Not to say that’s not an awesome way to practice music, just don’t release it unless you’ve done something special. Something like Vancouver’s Daniel Mangan did with his new album Thief, an incredibly beautiful collection of ‘original covers’ if you will.
Mangan had this to say about his new album Thief, “Songwriting is about flexing a muscle enough times to zero success that eventually, you accidentally lift a car when you’re not paying attention,” says Mangan. “Every great songwriter is a thief of their subconscious – maybe a melody from their childhood seeps out, or a phrase from a sandwich board a decade ago. When you’re young, you learn covers because it makes you feel connected to the swirling tornado of music that you so long to be a part of. As an adult, 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. My approach is that it’s nearly impossible to do a great song justice, and so I need to change it enough from the original form that it can no longer be compared to the source.”
Mangan’s approach to covers is why I’m enjoying this album so much. While writing this review I kept Spotify open to flip between this album and the original versions of each of the songs to get a sense of how Mangan had interpreted the music. Mangan’s style is haunting. From his cover of In An Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel to his interpretation of the 1987 radio hit and early ‘90s movie soundtrack-staple Have A Little Faith in Me by John Hiatt. There’s even a sweet Lauryn Hill cover on this album.
Let’s start at the top. The album starts with Mangan’s interpretation of R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion. As I said, Mangan’s style is haunting. In this case, the tempo of the song doesn’t change much, but the delivery is drastically different. It’s distant and more complicated. It sounds more heartbroken than the original if that’s possible.
Originally by the California alt-rock band Cake, Love You Madly is the second track on the album. This is probably one of my favorite interpretations on the album because of the unique perspective it gives to the song. There’s a sadness to love sometimes that creeps in. Getting past it often entails reminding ourselves of why we’re here in the first place.
From Kentucky, Louisiana, American rock band Neutral Milk Hotel is arguably a modern legend in the indie music scene. It’s not surprising, but it is delightful that Mangan included Aeroplan Over the Sea, the title track from Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album, released on Merge Records all the way back in 1998, in Theif. Mangan does the song absolute justice bringing that haunt to the song, that in this case sounds – to me at least – a bit more hopeful than the original.
Have you ever heard a song and knew you’ve heard it somewhere but you couldn’t figure out where? Have a Little Faith in Me, was originally recorded in 1987 by John Hiatt and has appeared in several classic late ‘80s/early ‘90s movies including Look Who’s Talking Now, Benny & Joon, and The Theory of Flight. This is a song that’s been around the block and has been covered by artists like Jon Bon Jovi, Jewel, and most recently by the one and only Dolly Parton on an electronic dance track alongside the Sweedish EDM act Galantis. Mangan took a risk covering this track, and I think it was a great risk to take.
Continuing with Mangan through a tour of Sweeden’s 1990s music scene, Hang With Me is a song by semi-iconic singer/songwriter Robyn. Again Mangan’s style takes over a song in a way that’s more emotional and perhaps more to the tune of the emotions of which the song was written. Not the dancer version isn’t awesome, of course, it is, it’s Robyn.
Next on the album is Ex-Factor, the Lauren Hill track I promised. Mangan again makes the song his own unquestionably, again giving the song a unique perspective with a beautiful rendition. It’s impossible for me to know at the moment what motivated Mangan to choose this song, I’m glad he did, and I’m here if he needs to talk.
Stairway is a song originally by Canadian indie band Yukon Blonde, and is the next song Mangan covers on the album. If you’re familiar with the song you know the original is fast-paced and even upbeat. Does Mangan make it work? You bet! Mangan slows this track down to get friendly with it at just the right times, and then – skillfully – speeds it back up when it makes sense. This is not an easy thing to accomplish and Mangan has made it work very well. I’m grateful this worked as well as it did as this is one of my favorite Yukon Blonde tracks. Kudos Dan!
The last song on the album couldn’t be a better choice. Bob Marly’s Chances Are was released by the artist originally in 1981 on his album of the same name. Marly is literally a hero in music and again, I salute Mangan’s bravery, as well as the care he takes in not only making this his own song but speaking true to the original as much as he could.
Cover songs are tricky. Cover songs can go wrong. Every artist borrows in one way or another from other artists. I can tell you this with absolute confidence and any artist who says they are 100% original, is absolutely lying. Artists are like everybody else in some ways, music makes us inspired to move, to dance, to cry, and – because we’re artists – ultimately, to create something. If you’re a musician it would make sense that it makes you want to experiment and make more music. If there is a takeaway from Mangan’s new album on the subject of cover songs, it’s that art is an evolution and a process; art should be expanded on rather than just replicated.
Thief is out now on all major streaming platforms. For more information on Dan Mangan visit: http://danmanganmusic.com.
Listen to Theif, by Dan Mangan here: