Nightlands: Oak Island

The War on Drugs' bass player steps out from the shadows of his main band with a warm, intimate and strange little album that has one foot in the past, one in the future.


Oak Island

Label: Secretly Canadian
US Release Date: 2013-01-22
UK Release Date: 2013-01-22

As Nightlands, Dave Hartley makes what might be the definition of bedroom music. Back in 2010, he took time off from his other projects, most notably as regular bass player for the War on Drugs, to record Forget the Mantra, an album based on song fragments he heard in his sleep (hence the Nightlands moniker). Reflecting its origins, Forget the Mantra was a dreamy, occasionally positively narcoleptic album. Its songs meandered at the whim of dream logic, each song a hazy, freewheeling blur of layered vocal loops and trance-inducing percussion. It was a pretty, often engaging listen, that managed to simultaneously recall African chants, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds-era vocal experiments, and Animal Collective's anarchic sensibility. Ultimately the album's loose structure and self-absorbed approach was as often baffling or simply boring as it was compelling, but if nothing else it did suggest an artist with great deal of ability.

On his new album, recorded on and off over the last couple of years, Hartley has refined his approach. Like Forget the Mantra, Oak Island was recorded in his Philadelphia bedroom, and a sleepy vibe remains. In fact, the pace is slowed down on the new album, the album filled with a warm, nostalgic sensibility. With a couple of exceptions, this is mostly quiet, contemplative music for warm firesides on snowy nights. But the innovation here is that Oak Island has a clearer structure both in its songs and as an album, and finds new levels of intimacy in its less abstract approach.

As an album, Oak Island seems to be predominantly concerned with memory and the passing of time, and there is a romantic melancholy pervading most songs. The first track, "Time and Peace", opens with a direct invitation to the listener to go with him "For just a little while / To a place I used to go / When I was only 17". The last track, "Looking for Rain" ends with the lines "Now I'm back here looking out the window / This looks like the place I know / But it'll never be my own".

Those two tracks bookend the album in slow sonorous incantations that nicely encapsulate the album's themes. After its sombre opening, an acoustic guitar chimes and "Time and Peace" opens out into an expansive, upbeat paean to youthful optimism. The album's other bookend, "Looking for Rain", is steadfastly downbeat. After an album seeped in nostalgia, the song seems to sadly acknowledge the ultimate futility of fixating the past – you might return to the places you've been, but they'll never be the same. It might be a trite observation, but it's artfully expressed here, and gives the album a satisfying sense of a journey completed. It's that kind of attention to detail that illustrates the strength of Hartley's commitment to his theme, and the care given to constructing the album as a coherent listening experience rather than just a collection of disparate songs.

In between those bookends, most of the other tracks also find Hartley looking back to times, places and people he once knew. In other hands, this focus on the distant past could have become cloying, but Hartley's lyrics are personal without falling into cliché, and the lush instrumentation generally avoids easy sentimentality. The most immediately noticeable element of the music are the vocals, which on virtually every track are thickly layered and heavily processed with all manner of effects. It could have easily become irritating, but the wide variety of sonic textures and effects are generally well chosen, serving to enhance the detached, dreamlike atmosphere of the songs. The approach might seem self-absorbed here too, were it not for the more immediately personal content of the songs – here, the album's singular (in every sense) personality is a real strength.

Musically, the best songs on Oak Island pull up a wide set of references – the lush sentimentality of Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips; rain-soaked ‘70s film noir soundtracks (especially Taxi Driver); the slow burn of Doves' heavily produced indie-rock; Yeasayer's trance-inducing psychedelic pop; and of course the ever-present Beach Boys, who remain an obvious touchstone. A couple of songs are even reminiscent of one of my favourite tracks from last year, the joyous Auto-Tuned Mister Rogers remix "Garden of Your Mind" by John D. Boswell, aka MelodySheep. Taken together the album attempts and largely succeeds at the difficult trick of mixing nostalgic and current sounds and sensibilities seamlessly, looking simultaneously backwards and into the future.

There are plenty of highlights, including the aforementioned widescreen opener "Time and Peace". "So Far So Long"'s gentle melancholy and soft percussion make it an odd choice for the album's lead single – single's night on a cruise ship, maybe. Still, it's a lovely choice for the second track, a romantic warm bath to ease into on a cold night. The real highlights come in the album's middle section though: the sweetly uplifting bass and horn-driven chorus of the album's most straightforward love song, "Born to Love", and the upbeat yet wistful "I Fell in Love With a Feeling".

Oak Island does have a few weaknesses. Several songs are mood pieces that barely and often belatedly come to life, pleasant and in keeping with the album's spirit, but unexceptional. "Rolling Down the Hill" is the weakest point, a subdued, blurry electronic track that sounds like one of Moby's discards, album filler that significantly overstays its welcome. Even then though, it's almost being saved by a strange little vocal interlude at the end. The album's finish is also a little abrupt. At 34 minutes, this is already a short album, only two tracks breaking four minutes in length. With the last two tracks following "Rolling Down the Hill" being both relatively short and slow-paced, it feels like Oak Island runs out of steam just as it's getting started, and ends with a bit of a sad shrug when it seemed something more grand was on the cards.Still, even if it doesn't fully deliver on its considerable promise, it's a good sign that Oak Island leaves you wanting more. With all the heavily processed vocal effects in use throughout the album, some track can sound like they're sung by a choir of sad androids, which is in keeping with Hartley's professed love of sci-fi. But what really shines through all the technological wizardry is the remarkable warmth and humanity of the album's best songs.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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