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Moonshine Review

by Marcy Donelson

When War on Drugs bassist Dave Hartley had the chance to return to his solo project, Nightlands, now in its second decade running, it was on the heels of some major life events. Since 2017's romantic I Can Feel the Night Around Me, he had become a father (twice), the COVID-19 pandemic had taken hold, and he and his family had relocated from his longtime base of Philadelphia to Asheville, North Carolina. With the latter two events in mind, fourth album Moonshine was a largely solitary project, if one involving a number of remote collaborators, including producer Adam McDaniel (Angel Olsen, Hurray for the Riff Raff). Some of the other contributors included Frank LoCrasto (Cass McCombs, Fruit Bats) and no less than four of his War on Drugs bandmates. A lush, sophisticated, and otherworldly project from its earliest days, Nightlands ultimately takes on its most panoramic rendering yet on a track list interspersed with brief, wordless ("Blue Wave," "Song for Brad") or lyrically concise atmospheric pieces, such as the cricket-assisted "Greenway." Its soaring, Beach Boys-like vocal progressions and droplet synths are accompanied by a few stanzas about how the world changes late at night, both externally and internally. The main framework of the album, however, is established with simultaneously cosmic and grooving songs like "Down Here," which appears after an opening track ("Looking Up") that introduces Hartley's familiar spectrum of heavily and lightly processed robotic vocal effects. Like the later "Greenway," "Down Here" also incorporates outdoor noise -- in this case, birds, crunching footsteps, a barking dog -- before settling into a relaxed yet animated groove consisting of live percussion, echoing Wurlitzer and piano timbres, and loping melodic bass. Those components are eventually joined by brass, dense vocal harmonies, and an astral saxophone solo by Western Vinyl labelmate Joseph Shabason. Moonshine never quite establishes contact with the ground from there, though it does stay tethered to earthly subject matter, including modern society and hypocrisy on a title track that plays with lyrics from "America the Beautiful." Although unusually spacious, that song remains in line with the rest of the heavily stylized album's nonetheless affecting, yearning balance of warmth and worry.

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