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Songs We Love: Mano Le Tough, 'Trails'

Mano Le Tough's <em>Trails</em> comes out Oct. 30.
White Tea
Courtesy of the artist
Mano Le Tough's Trails comes out Oct. 30.

/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

An Irishman in Berlin, Niall Mannion has recorded two albums under his faux-French nom de plume, Mano Le Tough. The title song from the second, Trails, implies much about what it means to be a writer of songs (as opposed to simply a producer of tracks) in dance music. There are only so many previously forged paths still worth pursuing in the field, and it's to Mannion's credit that "Trails" recognizes the progress made by the likes of Caribou (whose "Can't Do Without You" he helped remix in 2014) while clearly adding his own voice to the conversation. It helps make "Trails" a heartfelt winner, as well as (hopefully) a map for other writers to follow.

Mano Le Tough has moved leaps and bounds from his 2013 debut, Changing Days, and that's no knock on that album, a beautiful collection of deep, Balearic-minded house music full of heroic minor chords. It already contained a consistent vocal approach, even if too much of its sentiment was hidden under a vocoder-like haze. But on Trails, Mannion's voice is out front, and the beat isn't so intent on ushering listeners to the dance floor. Like the music of Radiohead, Nicolas Jaar and Caribou's Dan Snaith, among others, these are songs made for people who are at home in a club, yet universal in the way they search for connection with others.

"Trails" is the album's first-among-equals, but also a wistful aside. It's built around a staccato conversation involving a drum machine moving at an irregular house speed that a (seemingly live) hi-hat throws further off-kilter, a few gurgling synths that provide more context than focus, and a low-register electric guitar line that casts a mournful shadow. The in-the-mix effect is of a fusion-funk band in an expert but indifferent late-night noodling session. Yet the whole thing is somehow held together by Mannion's repeatedly speak-sung, open refrain, which creates a moment of indelible emotional tension.

And I ask you, are you my friend

Or my lover until the end

And there's nothing like coming down

Coming down with you again

The vocal moves from acting as the song's only glue to serving as its guide, shining an evolving light on the music being built around it — seemingly in real time. By the end, it reflects the subculture in which it naturally exists; no hands in the air, just going home and facing up to life.

Trails is out on Oct. 30 on Permanent Vacation.

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