Philadelphia’s the War on Drugs are a band that seem to thrive on mining the past with their moody, retro psych-rock. So it’s not surprising when the band’s members sneak away for solo projects that the end result is often cut from the same cloth, albeit in a slightly altered fashion. That’s certainly the case with Nightlands, the side project from War on Drugs bassist Dave Hartley. The music is a soothing, low-key, often woozy trip back to a time of old-school synths and lazy beats.
I Can Feel the Night Around Me is the third Nightlands album, and while it’s obvious that the band’s leader has a sonic connection with the War on Drugs, there may be a more accurate comparison in the melancholic, backwards-gazing sounds of Australia’s Tame Impala. In fact, if you were to distill I Can Feel the Night Around Me down to one sentence, you could say that it’s “the rich vocal harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash mixed with the music of Tame Impala’s Currents“.
But the sound on this new album is so lush and irresistible that it begs further elaboration. Hartley not only takes on the lion’s share of the instrument duties, he often overdubs his own harmonies, creating a one-man vocal ensemble. Citing “a deep interest in the mechanics of vocal blending and harmonic density”, he uses the songs on I Can Feel the Night Around Me as a way to showcase both his multitracking skills as well as his ability to create a unique, intoxicating mood.
Hartley begins the journey with the first track, “Lost Moon”, a mesmerizing mix of downbeat Pink Floydisms and multilayered vocals that sound like they flew in from a mid-period Beach Boys session, with Joseph Shabason’s saxophone allowing for a sensual Roxy Music vibe. “Depending on You” adds plinking piano chords combined with rubbery synthetic bass lines, keening keyboard riffs and those omnipresent harmonies. Hartley tends to handpick influences from a variety of different time periods — the ’70s and ‘80s seem to make the most appearances — but the general feeling is that this is an album that makes no concessions to the present. It’s always looking back, fondly.
In fact, the one cover on I Can Feel the Night Around Me is a fairly obscure nugget, “Only You Know”, originally recorded by Dion on his 1975 Phil Spector-produced Born to Be With You. While the song (also covered by Arctic Monkeys) shows Hartley’s impeccable taste for off-the-beaten-path covers, it also gives him a chance to stretch out vocally, eschewing a lot of the album’s usual moodiness with some deft pop crooning.
As the album progresses, a lot of the low-key melancholia gradually falls away and a somewhat upbeat, almost funky tropical vibe makes its way into songs like “Fear of Flying” (buoyed by irresistibly cheesy synth riffs) and the Brazilian hip-shaker “Moonbathing” (which features goofy, nonsensical lyrics like “Maggie and Lucy and Lucy and Maggie / Did you ever see a coin, I mean a Penny / That could flip itself / Heads or tails”).
Album closer “Human Hearts” revisits — to an extent — the Dion cover, in that it’s a throwback to Dion’s early career as a doo-wop crooner. The waltz tempo and general ‘50s love song structure mesh with the plastic synths and airtight drum machine (not to mention those aforementioned harmonies) in a way that sounds like it shouldn’t work, but does. Hartley manages to charm the listener with old-school sonic sensibilities. But he’s working from a variety of different schools.
I Can Feel the Night Around Me has a vibe that — true to its title — works particularly well for late-night listening, but shouldn’t be limited to any part of the day or any specific mood. Dave Hartley has an eclectic musical sensibility that seems to offer something for anyone, anytime.