By Dan Mangan
There's something about the imminence of the annual season of overeating and overspending that seems to make days and weeks fly by at a phenomenal rate. This time of year, time and money definitely go a lot faster and before you know it we'll be linking arms, avoiding kisses from strangers and hopefully avoiding the ubiquitous sing-a-longs of "Hi Ho Silver Lining". Soon enough we'll be flicking through the reviews and charts for the "Best of 2011" and then using Christmas vouchers to pick up any gems we've missed. So while it may be late on in the year for new releases, hopefully that doesn't preclude albums like "Oh Fortune" from receiving the plaudits they deserve in those lists.
The production on "Oh Fortune" is nothing short of beautiful and allows the songs to starve and drench you in equal parts. Some songs bear luscious and almost overwhelming orchestration, others have a stripped-back composition offering more intimacy with the vocals and a couple have both. This contrast of D.I.Y. and high-production is balanced perfectly throughout, as is the shift between reflective and uplifting moods. Some songs are laments, some a rousing call to arms and others are good old, high-spirited sing-a-longs. Whichever he sets out to achieve, Dan Mangan achieves it on every song by charging his vocals with more grit or warmth to suit the music.
One of the high points of the album for me - one of many - is "Leaves, Trees, Forest" with its dreamy guitars and sultry brushed percussion. However it's the vocals here that carry the real clout. Listen out for the line "That's the thing about everything. Everything always does that" and you'll see what I mean. The lyrics may be vulnerable or even dejected but the song is all the more beguiling for the strength that comes through in these vocals.
I can't actually think of any obvious low-points to the album so I'll just keep going with positives...
"How Darwinian", "Oh Fortune", "Rows of Houses" and "Starts With Them, Ends With Us" offer upbeat relief to lift from the more sombre and introspective moods of "If I am Dead", "Daffodil" and "Regarding Death and Dying" but every song is in here for a reason; there's as much reason to celebrate joy and victory as there is to mourn the pains of loss and sorrow. Musically, there are splashes of Romany rhythms here and dashes of cavalry drums there - backed by subtle loops and atmospheric samples, old-sounding microphones, rich string accompaniments and soul-warming brass. Another nice touch you'll find in some places is where one song bleeds into the next, opening the album up into movements rather than just a run of straight songs. I love the soundscape feel this can give an album which in parts here left me floating somewhere between an Ennio Morricone piece and a Devotchka b-side. Never a bad thing - even if I did just make that very space up!
While listening, I discovered some similarities to the music of Andrew Bird. I'm a big fan of everything he's done over the years for lots of reasons; the originality, the subtlety mixed with grandeur ("Oh, The Grandeur!"), the abundant skill for working classical sensibilities in to fresh-sounding pop and the intelligent lyrics that add layers of meaning to the music. Birds' albums stand-out proudly on my bowed shelves as something refreshing. So for "Oh Fortune" to make such a great bedfellow for albums like "Noble Beast" and "Armchair Apocrypha", the comparison is far from a negative one. In fact it's an out and out compliment.
So if you're looking for one last album before the year is out - give "Oh Fortune" a shot. There's an intelligent blend here of traditional sounds mixed with impressively fresh production that you won't hear on many other albums this year. If like me, you've been digging the hole wider and deeper and looking for new sounds to add to your collection - go for it. If Americana tickles your fancy in any way - you won't be disappointed.