The son of a genetic engineer, Dave Hartley has eschewed his father’s profession but decidedly inherited his analytical proclivities and love of “the lab.” As Nightlands, Hartley is a scientist trying to create and understand art through analytical process. Here, with sophomore album Oak Island, his follow up to 2010’s superb Forget the Mantra, new questions are explored: what happens when the human voice is layered exponentially? Is the sum more man, or more melancholy machine? In seeking these answers, Nightlands takes us on a spirit quest through lush forests down into The Uncanny Valley. Each distorted, silver-voiced melody is wrapped in the sounds of 70s AM gold — plucked acoustic guitars, trumpets, dulcimers and hand percussion. In using these pop touchstones, the songs become something close to memories, the faded feelings that tide in and out of you when conjuring the past. To this end, virtually every chord played on Oak Island is a major-7th, the most nostalgic harmonic grouping. Seals & Croft produced by mid-70s beetle-voiced Brian Eno. Crosby, HAL and Nash.
Beneath the analytics and technical experimentation lie 10 pop songs about sadness and love; this silvery robot has learned what it means to be human and paid a great cost. The elegant, lunar bossa-nova of album standout “So Far So Long,”with its distant trumpeted satellite signals, offers a slow, confident lilting and wilting, as Hartley considers traversing space and time.
Hartley is a prolific sideman in many notable bands in and around Philadelphia and the extraordinary bassist of The War on Drugs (he played bass on Sharon Van Etten’s epic, in Sondre Lerche’s touring band, and sings in The Silver Ages). Listeners expecting a simple side project, however, will be surprised by the boldness and scope of his vision–Nightlands is the Chuck Close painting to the The War on Drugs’ De Kooning.