By Mandi Kimes
Ascendant Chicago band Whitney has released their highly-anticipated debut album, Light Upon the Lake, on Secretly Canadian. Light Upon The Lake marks the culmination of a short, but incredibly intense, creative period post-breakup for the band. Formed from the core of ex-Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek and ex-Unknown Mortal Orchestra singing drummer Julien Ehrlich, Whitney was born from a series of laidback early-morning songwriting sessions during one of the harshest winters in Chicago after Ehrlich and Kakacek reconnected as roommates splitting rent in a small Chicago apartment. Eventually, the pair teamed up as musical collaborators, passing the guitar and the lyrics sheet back and forth, writing about the break-ups they were enduring and the breakdowns they were trying to avoid. Each served as the other’s most brutal critic and most sympathetic confessor, a sounding board for the hard truths that were finding their way into new songs.
While they worked their way through the new songs, they became more aware of the perfect imperfections of the songs. Needing to strike the right balance, they eventually made the trek out to California, where they recorded with longtime friend, Foxygen's Jonathan Rado. Ehrlich and Kakacek emerged as imaginative and insightful songwriting partners, impressive in their scope and restraint as they mold classic rock lyricism into new and personal shapes without sound revivalist or retro.
First track and lead single "No Woman" is as soothing to your musical memory as the first two bars of The Chordette's "Mr. Sandman," which begins the tune before horns peaks their way through. In spite of its own lost soul wistfulness, there's something immediately comforting and simple at the core of this song. The combination of the horn section with the strings weaving their way in and out of the melody through the guitar line puts you in the middle of the frustrating relationship and initial breakup. It’s like you’re trying to make sense of one thing, before another element interrupts you and shows you something else to focus on. The simplicity of the percussion throughout the song also proves that you don’t need banging drums to make a huge statement; just hired a horn section. Ehrlich's naked, soft-edged falsetto charmingly guides us through this breakup bender amid subdued strings and velveteen horn section bursts. Whitney has given us the anthem for moseying on and forgiving yourself of your many fumbles. "‘No Woman’ started to take shape when I woke up on a friend’s floor one morning. He was taking a shower and the chorus popped into my head while I was grabbing my stuff to go home,” Ehrlich explains. “Later on [Kakacek] and I sat down and wrote the chords and song structure in our apartment. It’s about losing the love of your life and being thrown into an aimless journey because of it.”
“The Falls” picks up the pace on the piano, and I can’t help but love the song immediately. The lush instrumentation mixes together so perfectly well. The song talks about losing control of yourself after a breakup, whether it’s drinking too much or not being able to sleep or disappearing for a while, but unless you shift your focus from the extraordinary ornamentation in the string section and peppy piano, you’d never be able to guess that the lyrics are in fact disheartening. After two verse-chorus formats, the song ends too quick, capping in at 2:21. It almost has a similar feel as The Beatles’ “I Will” in the bass line and melody in the guitar picking. Almost seamlessly transitioning into second single and third track “Golden Days,” Whitney slow the beat down in this thoughtfully raw tune about how things have changed and you cannot go back to those “golden days.” According to Ehrlich on Whitney’s Twitter account, he and Kakacek sent the demo of “Golden Days” to their exes, and they both called within that day crying. The subtle introduction of the strings in the second verse adds a sense of sentimentalism. This intricate pop tune is musically a sunny summer tune, especially with the sliding gesture in the guitar and tinkering piano, until the sunburst of horns in the bridge and the “Na-na-na” ending carry you out like “Hey Jude.”
“Dave’s Song” slows down the mood and the delicate guitar melody that wisps by quickly breezes by like windchimes. The slide guitar throughout the tune resembles the act of drifting on into a daydream, possibly about an old friend: “I know you can’t help me now, but sometimes people change // I’ve been sick since you left town, you gotta find a way to feel the same // I know it’s hard to give up when I don’t wanna be saved // Take my in your heart again // I don’t wanna keep you hung up, but I won’t do it again // Oh you know, I wish you were my friend.” Drums and horns join in on the second verse to heighten the longing for peace. The introduction to organ in the bridge with the orchestration adds an element of eeriness behind the memories. Ehrlich’s range extends from its simple pop melodies to soulful accidentals in this minor-based song. The song moves into “Light Upon the Lake” without ease. It begins with just two guitars weaving in and out of each other in melody, similar to a Sufjan Stevens’ song. The finger-picking in the chorus reminds me of “Blackbird,” and we are again introduced to the dueling guitar part that slowly moves up the scale. The keys arrive midway through to add subtlety to the instrumentation, followed by long-bowed strings simply playing the chords.
“No Matter Where We Go” sets the pace for another poppy summer tune that calls for the window to be rolled down and the wind to be blown through your hair, just as the song suggests. Ironically serving as the only song on the album not about breaking up, Whitney channels a sense of Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” in this tune. The combination of the whirling guitars, the dreamlike ragtime-esque piano, and tight drum beats makes “No Matter Where We Go” is feel-good song that everyone in the midst of falling in love should listen to. Moving in a different direction, “On My Own” is, according to Whitney’s Twitter, is about “the shittiest long-distance relationship known to mankind.” The song begins with a tropical sound in the guitars before Ehrlich sings “I can’t sleep alone when you’re on my mind // I’m moving slowly when I’m on my own,” and I can’t help but feel a sense of familiarity in my own long-distance relationship. Ehrlich again adds his soulful vocal range to this song, and the guitars sweep through the melodies. More guitars, bass, and drums arrive for the second verse to serve as the backup for Ehrlich in this time of despair. The horns after the second chorus are absolutely beautiful as they layer harmonies on top of each other. Just as I’m setting into the groove of this song, it ends with a single trumpet at just 2:14.
Serving as a filler transitional track, “Red Moon” is the funky jazz-influenced jam with a typical jazz trio of piano, drums, and bass. A trumpet plays a sultry melody overtop the groove set by the trio and the “ba-da-da-dum” in the rhythm is the central theme of the tune. Unexpectedly, the piano steps out of playing chords for a moment at 1:18 to play a melody climbing up the scale. At 1:42, it’s the shortest track on the album moving right into “Polly,” Ehrlich’s favorite song. The song begins with Ehrlich singing over a subtle organ sound. After Ehrlich sings “I lay awake in all kinds of darkness, Polly” the full band kicks in to produce a high-level wall of sound jam. Channeling “Mother Nature’s Son” in the horn section, the horns dominate the song as Ehrlich reminisces about an old love throughout intricate guitar work and simple organ. The soulful trumpet ends this tune over dreamy organ to land you back on your feet from the blast through the clouds this song just sent you through. The album ends with “Follow,” which Ehrlich confesses to have performed at his grandfather’s funeral, crying so much that he had channeled tears “from a new place.” The song contains a chugging rhythm in the percussion and guitars. During the post-chorus instrumental break, I cannot help but hear Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” in the guitar melody, no matter how many times I listen to it. The chanting of “I’ll follow you,” over the hypnotic instruments in the second half is the perfect feel-good moment in any film score or movie trailer just before the credits roll, think Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zero’s “Up From Below.”
For fans of the orchestral nature of Sufjan Stevens, the anthemic side to Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and the hushed melodic intricacies of The Beatles, I highly recommend giving Whitney’s Light Upon The Lake a good listen. I had been looking forward to this album for a while, and my expectations were exceeded from the first listen of “No Woman” to the final fadeout of “Follow.”