Amid massive global paradigm shifts Dave Hartley (aka Nightlands) became a father twice over and left his native Philadelphia for Asheville, where the pace of daily life is slower and it's easier to maintain a zoomed-out perspective on modern life. From the newfound refuge of a studio he built using the bones of a barn attached to his hundred-something-year-old house in the mountains, Hartley has tailored a collection of well-crafted pop rock, pointedly titled Moonshine. Guided by some of the harmonic sensibilities that have helped make The War on Drugs a force in modern music, Moonshine combines immaculate-yet-dense vocal stacks and billowy clouds of effected keyboards with classic songcraft, revealing previously unseen acreage in the unfurling dreamscape that is Nightlands. The surrealistic album art by Austin-based illustrator Jaime Zuverza depicts an archway opening to the stars over the surface of an idyllic sea flanked by both moon and sun. Similarly, Moonshine reveals portals within portals leading to ever deeper places in Hartley's vocal-centered labyrinth.
Hartley lays out the narrative of Moonshine on its masterfully sparse opener, “Looking Up.” “Take your family to the mountains,” he sings, “Hide them safely; pray for mercy, and easy fictions...” Throughout the album, there are plenty of buoyant high moods where the pitter-patter of drum machine and humming digital organ hints at Hartley's low-key tropicalia streak, but lyrics such as these anchor the dreaminess in real-world sorrow and resignation. Nowhere are these sentiments more apparent than on the title track, a nearly acapella recitation of “America the Beautiful” that poignantly hovers over a mirage of soft keyboards before dovetailing into Hartley's own words about the hypocrisy of the American dream. “This was never intended to be an overtly political record” he admits. “I have so many friends who are able to process the frustration of current events gracefully or with wisdom or in a nuanced way, but I often find myself just consumed with anger about it all. I decided to just let that come out, and it manifested itself lyrically.” Moonshine's wide-eyed, utopian instrumental backdrops provide sharp contrast to Hartley's lyrics, which sting even harder within the sweetness.
“With You” follows with full-on pop romanticism, as a rolling synth bass line and a decelerated drum machine ground the breezy arrangement. The track departs after an accumulation of warbling keyboard textures give way to “Blue Wave,” an angelic instrumental vignette that deepens the mood while allowing the listener to reflect on Moonshine's earlier chapters. The slowly anthemic “No Kiss for the Lonely” takes poetic aim at xenophobia beneath a canopy of chiming bells, kalimba-like textures, glassy vocoded passages, and a massive chorus derived almost entirely from Hartley's own voice, exemplifying the nucleus of his creative process. “I spend ninety percent of my studio time building these vocal stacks with sort of endless vocal layering and lots of speeding up and slowing down of the track, overdubbing at different speeds and with different microphones,” Hartley details, “and I really perfected that, I think, on this record.” In terms of instrumentation, Hartley pared things down as much as possible, choosing to allocate all of Moonshine's density to his vocal harmonies, the layers of which number in the hundreds on some songs. “People sometimes ask me what's in my vocal effects chain, gear wise” he muses, “but honestly it's just a matter of having put in thousands of hours obsessing over the blend of these stacks, honing the craft.”
Even in light of the album's vocal emphasis, Hartley's history as a bassist brilliantly beams through Moonshine, giving effortless and sprightly movement to songs like “Down Here,” which also features an extended section of saxophone lent by his Western Vinyl labelmate, Joseph Shabason. In addition to Shabason, the album hosts a short list of remote collaborators including four of Hartley's bandmates from The War on Drugs, Robbie Bennet, Anthony Lamarca, Eliza Hardy Jones, and Charlie Hall, as well as exotica virtuoso Frank Locrasto (Cass McCombs, Fruit Bats), and producer Adam McDaniel (Avey Tare, Angel Olsen). Hartley was forced to keep the guest list small out of the necessity of pandemic isolation, coupled with his move to a smaller city, all of which challenged him to do most of the album's heavy lifting right down to the mixing duties, resulting in the most independent effort of his career. By that measure, Moonshine is also the clearest image yet of Dave Hartley as a person and creator.
Hartley’s side-project (with cameos by all his TWOD bandmates) is a winning collection of endearingly eggheaded, Eno-esque art pop with no end of soft-rock flair. Catnip for anyone who ever wished Peter Cetera would record an album for Warp.
Hartley's music seeps out and fills spaces, combining the kind of expansive resonance found in Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs with Beach Boys-like vocal arrangements
Unguarded, idyllic, and often pastoral, the songs are full of earthy instruments and layers of harmony that are refracted through watery reverb to excellent effect.