Mano Le Tough (a.k.a. Niall Mannion) has been going down the song-oriented path for some time, but the assurance with which his latest album, Changing Days, creates its own meeting place between pop songcraft and a house framework is impressively fluid. Changing Days is one of the finer and more genuinely affecting dance/pop hybrids in recent memory. Not surprisingly, the forlorn, melodic mood of earlier records like 2011's Stories EP is immediately recognizable on this, the Irish-born, Berlin-based producer's first full-length, but it's foregrounded and elegantly developed in a way that's well suited to the album format. The LP's shifting focus between snappy, chiming beats and Mannion's own singing gives it an oceanic ebb and flow that's engrossing enough to render questions of floor-friendliness moot.
Of course, this considered-yet-poppy take on dance music is the kind of thing that Permanent Vacation generally excels at. While it's unlikely that the somewhat demure Changing Days will be the crossover hit that John Talabot's ƒIN was last year, Mannion's just as successful exploring a broad range of styles while digging deeper into his own sound. Sonically, Mano Le Tough bears a stronger resemblance to the Pampa/Areal/Kompakt-affiliated Ada; both seem to be trying to figure out how emotionally gripping they can make their songs without leaving the house/techno umbrella. While time doesn't generally smile on dance music that's calculatedly populist, Ada and Mano Le Tough alike simply seem preoccupied with melody, with both artists constantly refining the emotional as well as the rhythmic contour of what they're doing.
For Mannion, that means lots of layers of tuned percussion, snatches of guitar, and emotionally naked vocals churning unresolvedly on top of subtly jacking beats. Mannion isn't a technically gifted singer, but what he lacks in music-theoretical range he makes up by creating unique roles for his voice on each song. On "Primative People," he's unusually strident; on "Cannibalize" and even moreso on "Everything You've Done Before," he's dejected but resolved; "Please" juxtaposes a vocodered plea against a bluesy, unprocessed one, and even Mannion's nasal approximation of soul singers is serviceable rather than distracting.
A strong sense of narrative development also drives the instrumental tracks: "Nothing Good Gets Away" and "Moments of Truth" in particular are stuffed with cycling musical cues. Much of the album feels like a succession of plateaus, shifting along the lines of an internal logic that's satisfyingly available to the listener. At times, Mannion does get a little too invested in the surface beauty of his music, though; "Dreaming Youth"'s introduction feels overlong, even if it sets up his falsetto vocal coda well. Still, that's a minor detail to take issue with in an album that otherwise solicits unflagging attention and involvement, but works just as well as melancholic, but active, background music. As accessible as Changing Days is, it also sounds freer than Mano Le Tough's previous work. The album-artist model seems to fit him as well as the 12"-producer one does.