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Night Moves turn quarter-life dread, big-time expectations into gold on Pennied Days

John Pelant and Micky Alfano are workin’ on their Night Moves.

John Pelant and Micky Alfano are workin’ on their Night Moves.

Night Moves seemingly came from nowhere with their 2012 debut album, Colored Emotions.

That record was posted for free on Bandcamp and within weeks had generated so much adulation that London label Domino Recording Co. (Animal Collective, the Kills, Hot Chip) signed the band to a deal. The Minneapolis trio went back to the studio, touched up the mixes, and re-released Colored Emotions to an eager national audience in 2013.

It was the kind of rise rock critics like to call "meteoric," and even though the big-name blogs were lukewarm toward Colored Emotions, Night Moves had cemented themselves as one of the buzziest bands out of the Twin Cities. After the album's re-release, they toured with Lord Huron and Father John Misty. Locally, they were named Best New Band by City Pages, beating out fellow rocketeers Howler, who'd been snatched up by Rough Trade Records weeks before Night Moves' own signing.

The narrative was simple and reiterable: cavalier slackers who got together, gave a nod to Bob Seger, and roughed up a bit of magic. But it couldn't have been further from reality.

"We were making Colored Emotions for like two and a half years," says frontman John Pelant, who'd been playing in bands with bassist Micky Alfano and then-keyboardist Mark Ritsema since high school. "People were like, 'It sounds so polished for a first band,' but that's what happens when you don't just shit out a record and you take your time."

It's been three and a half years since that record dropped — an eternity in the cannibalistic world of buzz bands — but now Night Moves are back to prove patience pays dividends with their sophomore cut, Pennied Days. The album — which dropped on March 25 and will be celebrated at First Avenue on April 14 — takes the ennui and psychedelia of the band's debut and sends it out to space.

"All I could think about was the sophomore slump," Pelant says. "When you're not touring or putting out music, it really feels like you've fallen off the map. You don't wanna make the same record and have it come out two years later, because people will be like, 'What the fuck were you doing that whole time?'"

The layover between Colored Emotions and Pennied Days represented a magnitudinal change for Pelant and Alfano. It's a window through which they watched friends overdose and commit suicide and others get married and have kids. People from their high school built up their 401ks and invested in property; meanwhile Pelant and Alfano took time off from bartending to play South by Southwest.

The "pennied days" to which the album refers are the years between the ages of 23 and 27 where you're asked to make the first permanent decisions of your life, Pelant says. It's the period when most people pick out the nouns that will define them for the rest of their lives (teacher, accountant, musician), when nostalgia is its most coercive and doubt its most sickening. Pennied Days is a time capsule of this vortex.

"It's like, where do I fit in all of this?" Pelant says. "Do I wanna be touring or on a label? Do I get a job? I've got a degree, so it makes me wonder whether I shouldn't do music, and who I would be if I gave up. And that got pretty grim."

Though Pennied Days plays as blithe and carefree, so much of the tracklist is wrapped in the anxieties Night Moves faced in the years between albums. "Kind Luck" is the type of haunted love song that questions the very purpose of the emotion, and album closer "Only to Live in Your Memories" uses heartbreak as a gateway to greater disillusionment.

"Having to divide your time between someone you love and something you love, that can be really disillusioning," Pelant says. "You just wonder which one is gonna be around longer. When you start thinking like that, it can get a little fucked up."

As such, Pennied Days' gestation was not without casualties. In 2014, Ritsema, a founding member of Night Moves, left the band to pursue a solo career as Suzie. His debut, Born Single, took off immediately, leading many to wonder what'd become of Night Moves.

"During that period of time, it was a large period of growth where people were becoming themselves — something's gotta get pushed out," Pelant says. Ritsema recorded on roughly half of Pennied Days, and the former bandmates are all on good terms.

Much of the band's maturation had to do with Pelant acquiescing to the reality of writing an album while on a label. For the first time in their careers, he and Alfano were professional musicians with professional expectations. Whereas Colored Emotions was conceived in the vacuum before radio showcases and Pitchfork reviews, Pennied Days was created under the guidance of Domino.

"They really pushed us to get into some different territory so we weren't just making a second Colored Emotions," Pelant says. "But at the same time, there was so much growth. I learned a lot, and the record does sound better. When I listen to the first record, and I never thought that'd be the case, I get a little cringey."

But the process was frustrating. Pelant was flown out to New York by himself to work on Pennied Days with Kurt Vile/Hold Steady producer John Agnello. Whereas Pelant had produced much of Colored Emotions on his own with Thom Monahan acting as something of a re-engineer, Agnello defied Pelant's vision of a washed-out, space-rock burner.

"The whole thing with like the record label, I think we thought it was going to be easier than it was," Pelant says. "It got kinda hairy towards the mixing process. With 'Carl Sagan,' I was messing with the filters, and [Agnello] was like, 'You're totally ruining the mix, you're fucking everything up.' We almost killed each other. It was bad."

Agnello's insistence that Night Moves make vocals more present in the recording, combined with Domino's emphasis on laying down a definitive single, made Pelant nervous that Night Moves would become another victim of big-label meddling. For the first time, he was letting outside forces into his creative process. But, back in the Twin Cities, Alfano could see that those forces were ultimately working for good.

"A lot of bands don't get what we got," Alfano says. "Friends in other bands have expressed jealousy that we were pushed."

Through it all, Pelant and Alfano have learned they're better off without meteoric rises. Gradual and meaningful growth sustained them through the sudden upswell and the prolonged hush. Without the pauses and periods of silence, they wouldn't be making so much noise today. 

Night Moves 
With: Gramma’s Boyfriend, Carroll. 
When: 7 p.m. Thu., April 14. 
Where: First Avenue.
Tickets: $12-$15; more info here.