There is a very, very thin line between being brilliant and being boring. Radiohead’s “Kid A,” for instance, veered into both territories so recklessly that it eventually became a thrill of a record to listen to despite the initial uncomfortable feelings it exuded for some. Even a work as pop-centric as The Postal Service’s “Give Up” was too melodramatic for a faction of listeners who dismissed the thing as too abstract or apathetic for their taste. The 10 songs that painted the album were nothing more than a combination of sounds that meshed together so much, some argued, it was hard to distinguish one track from the next.
And it’s to those very people that the following statement must be said: You might have a problem with Nightlands’ “Oak Island,” an ambiguous experimental set from Frederick native Dave Heartley that proves to be a trip down Brian Eno Lane with intentions of stopping at Justin Vernon’s alto-voiced second cousin’s crash pad. It’s thick stuff, crowded with noises, layers and electronics over which every Pitchfork-reading, flannel-wearing know-it-all should salivate. As for the less-as-cool, MTV-watching, skinny-jean-wearing culture vulture who thinks Daft Punk was the one to first sample Kanye West and not vice versa?
None of this is to imply that any of what Heartley is doing here isn’t fascinating. Most tracks are a glamorous take on contradiction — beautifully constructed pop harmonies that rest underneath an at-times snooze-worthy amalgam of vocals that too often become forgettable. Take “You’re My Baby.” While a shell of a slow rhythm accentuated by easy electric guitar chords paints a dreary background, the guy’s singing chops are rendered moot and almost counterintuitive to the expansive nature of the composition. Live drums eventually kick in at about the three-minute mark, but by then, it’s too late to hold any prospective listener’s attention.
Actually, if “Oak Island” has an Achilles heel, it would be those chameleon vocals. Clearly an exercise in abundance, each track is layered heavily with multiple voices, creating a very distinct atmosphere that hardly ever changes tone or time. It’s as though Heartley’s single intention with this record was to redefine the role of lead vocals within popular music and the result is equally imaginative and overbearing. The trick forces all of the release to inevitably walk that line between boring and brilliance, producing results that are as much a mixed bag as they are singularly memorable, for better or for worse.
“I Fell In Love With A Feeling,” the record’s best track, is an explosion of harmony and pop sensibility that will have any fan of Top 40 radio grooving along to the indie pop tempo and a trumpet line they swear they’ve heard before. At a little more than two minutes, it’s easily the most accessible of the bunch, a quick little ditty that will land on the next mixtape you make for your friends who love Portishead. “So Far So Long” has some great use of below-the-radar intricacies that make each listen become another opportunity to find a different reason for appreciation. And despite its slowed-down, somewhat grating approach, it ultimately succeeds.
But for as interesting and complicated as Heartley can be, he can’t seem to help himself from appearing redundant at times. “Other Peoples Pockets,” for instance, is just a reiteration of tricks he uses elsewhere, except this time, it’s slowed down, and this time, all curiosity is tempered by the bland nature of the performance. “So It Goes” passes for the set’s most noticeable ballad, yet it never seems to expand on its doom-and-gloom nature enough to keep listeners’ attention past the 2-minute mark. And sure, “Time & Place” eventually blossoms into a nice-looking Tulip, but because of how unnecessary a lot of the track’s earlier parts become, it’s hard to appreciate the duality of the song at first glance.
Then again, such seems to be the precise point of Nightlands and the songs that appear on “Oak Island.” This type of music isn’t made to be digested easily or understood entirely. It takes multiple plays before one can even begin to look past the despondent nature of this set and begin to dissect how impressive it is for someone to put something like this together. Is it the easiest or friendliest listen you could happen upon? No. But does it adhere to the innovative and baroque principles that those Pitchfork-reading, flannel-wearing know-it-alls tend to adore?
Well, let’s just say that you could bet your lumberjack beard on as much and never have to worry about buying a razor blade ever again.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **