Dave Hartley, aka the one-man band that is Nightlands, knows how to set a scene. The opening track on his second album pulls you in beautifully with an eerie synth hush before his vocals, subtly electronically processed to add that otherworldly feel, intone “I’d like to invite you, for just a little while, to a place I used to go, when I was only 17, back to the place that I once knew”. As opening tracks to an album go, they don’t get much more welcoming than that.
Philadelphia-based Hartley has been performing as Nightlands for a few years now, producing the hazy, bedroom-recorded Forget The Mantra album in 2010 as well as acting as the bass player for The War On Drugs. There’s not much sign of the Kurt Vile outfit’s influence on Nightlands though – Oak Island pretty much picks up from where Forget The Mantra left us and runs with it, a dreamy half-hour lounge in a bath that feels luxuriant, if oddly unfulfilling.
The trouble with Oak Island is that it’s almost too calm, at the start of the record at least. The first three tracks drift in on such a wave of hazy bliss that it almost lulls you off to sleep – the opening Time & Place is followed by the similarly paced So Far So Long, which is succeeded by the languid You’re My Baby. Individually, all very nice, but at this point in the album, it’s all threatening to make Bon Iver sound like Skrillex.
Thankfully, things pick up as the album progresses. Nico is a massive burst of energy, while the album standout I Fell In Love With A Feeling beautifully meshes together beats, keyboard patterns and bursts of brass to create the best song Metronomy never wrote. The ridiculously intense Rolling Down The Hill too is very nearly a club classic, packed with electronic trickery, but the overall effect of Oak Island is that of a hazy, dreamy narcotic.
That hazy feeling means that much of Oak Island has a distant, aloof feel to it. It’s an atmosphere that can work well in small bursts, but over the course of an album becomes wearying. It’s almost as if the silver bodypaint that Hartley has coated himself in for the cover art has added a slightly robotic edge to his music, an edge that keeps us at arm’s length, no matter how gorgeous the soundscapes on display.
This is all beautifully constructed by Hartley – witness the blare of horns at the start of I Fell In Love With A Feeling, the gorgeous jangle of Born To Love or the reflective, wistful nature of album closer Feel Like Rain. Yet there’s something mysterious about the album which stops it
from having a genuine emotional connection with the listener. Maybe it’s in the swathes of electronica that bathe Hartley’s vocals, maybe it’s the deliberately abstract lyrics – but it results in an album that’s easy to enjoy yet difficult to fall in love with.