When Julian Ehrlich and Max Kakacek created Whitney after the split of their former project Smith Westerns, a specific persona was also born – the character of Whitney himself, whom the duo describes as a lonely guy who drinks far too much, a guy who’s “very sad and distraught, but has good times, too.” This tragic, emotional persona bodes incredibly well for their music, as themes like love and the lack thereof flutter around lush melodies well beyond their years. In fact, through these crisp, honeyed vocals and mellow, yet skilled instrumentals, the Chicago septet flawlessly personify the mercurial genre of country soul with each track that appears on Light Upon The Lake, their impressive debut album.
Given each founding member’s background (Ehrlich’s work as drummer for Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Kakacek’s guitar for Smith Westerns), the underlying ’70’s vibe and retro feel of the instrumentals, though minuscule, come as no surprise. For Light Upon The Lake, however, the duo quickly swaps out that psychedelia with a more vintage Americana sound, and the addition of a lush, dazzling horn section throughout the album’s ten tracks helps to solidify that idea even more, heard in the upbeat “Golden Days” and instrumental track “Red Moon,” as well as many others. However, as far as instrumentals go, Kakacek’s guitar performance is the main attraction. It dazzles and shimmers in the devoted “Dave’s Song” and the gorgeous title track, and evokes the feeling of joy in the summer stunner “No Matter Where We Go.” This all occurs, of course, while Ehrlich’s soft falsetto vocals simultaneously evoke sadness and adoration, as he sings of everything from the nature of love and relationships to the often lonely life of a musician struggling to come to terms with a new way of living. Closer “Follow” serves as a eulogy for Ehrlich’s grandfather, which also hints at Whitney’s ability to hide such emotional themes underneath such ornate, euphoric instrumentation – giving new meaning to the quintessential “heartbreak” album.
The beauty of Light Upon The Lake is its unassuming and incredibly approachable nature – meaning that it will sound so familiar and warm that it can often appear to be too simple for its own good – but also grows on you the more you listen. The group’s collective young age actually adds a level of naivety to the songs, allowing for bouts of modernity to overpower tradition while still maintaining a level of respect. And, through this respect, beautiful things have the ability to take shape. Opener “No Woman” claims that role in the album, as it is both absolutely stunning and incredibly impressive vocally and instrumentally. The initial swell and flourish of the Roland piano – as well as Ehrlich’s pained, passionate vocals that burst forward afterwards – immediately arrest the senses, and locks the listener in place for a dense, sprawling masterpiece. Gradually, violins, horns, and guitar all build on top of each other, but leaving ample room for Kakacek’s stunning instrumental riff to beautifully overwhelm the ears. In fact, if there was one track that perfectly expresses this band’s ability to both create mellifluous sound and conjure emotion, “No Woman” should be that track, for it, much like Whitney, continues to amaze with each listen.
photo by Laura Harvey