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Whitney Shuns Buzz Band Banality on 'Light Upon the Lake'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

No band in the history of everything has managed to avoid “death” in the sense that all bands – from The Beatles to your favorite local proto-punk-neo-folk-soul group – break up for one reason or another, with varying degrees of adversity and dramaticism. Obviously, The Beatles disbanded in 1970, but weren’t “definitively” broken up until Mark David Chapman read Catcher in the Rye in December of 1980, and as far your favorite local proto-punk-neo-folk-soul group is concerned, their drummer Keith was promoted to the late shift manager at Starbucks, so he won’t be able to practice most evenings, and proto-punk-neo-folk-soul drummers are at a premium in Des Moines. But silly comparisons aside, band breakups are rarely ever a joyous occurrence – tensions run high, bridges are burned, and once-hopeful fans are left with a finite discography.

So, when a particularly “buzzy” band such as Smith Westerns calls it a quits, the resulting career uncertainty for the former members can become increasingly unsettling to the devout follower. Fortunately, the legacy that follows Smith Westerns’ end looks to be far more promising than whatever outlook the original group may have had. Former front-man Cullen Omori made his way over to Sub Pop and released his solid solo debut with New Misery in March, and now, former Smith Westerns drummer Julien Ehrlich (who also had a stint in Unknown Mortal Orchestra) and guitarist Max Kackacek have banded together to form Whitney, and release a wonderfully jangly 70s-revival debut record, Light Upon the Lake.

Light Upon the Lake begins with a stellar album opener in “No Woman,” a seemingly mawkish entrance that meanders aimlessly as Ehrlich’s soft-cooing vocals opine about waking up in Los Angeles and experiencing an indefinite and tiresome change. Kackacek’s deceptively smooth '70s Martin-esque riffs eventually lead the track in a decidedly more confident direction, with a cacophony of horns closing out the introductory track. The succeeding tracks on Light Upon the Lake see an uptick in tone and vibrancy as “The Falls” feels like a mix of Vulfpeck percussive piano playful nudging Ehrlich’s lyrical musings on losing control, leading into “Golden Days,” the wax poetic (and indie rock right of passage) chronicling of some relationship passed (can’t help but think there might be some Smith Westerns undertones) – “It’s a shame we can’t get it together now.”

Where many might try and incorporate aspects of past projects into their current one, Whitney does a fantastic of presenting a definite tone and substantive grip of who Whitney is, namely in the band’s consistent use of horns, bouncing piano, and clean Martin riffs deftly maneuvered by Kackacek – especially on the album’s eponymous standout, “Light Upon the Lake.” The overall feel of Light Upon the Lake could be likened to The Band meets UMO with flecks of Vulfpeck and Blake Mills – in short, its wholly unique. The album features a number of punk sensibilities when it comes to lyrical verisimilitude and general brevity – the three song stretch of “No Matter Where I Go,” “On My Own,” and “Red Moon” runs a whopping 5:38 – with “On My Own” into “Red Moon” being the most impressive track pairing of the bunch, primarily for the excellent showcasing of horns mixed with Kackacek’s ever-tasteful licks. All in all, the two strongest aspects of Light Upon the Lake are Kackacek’s guitar expertise and the incorporation of harmonious brass work – making the record distinctly modern but also managing to hearken back to a softer time in rock music.

Light On the Lake closes out as sweetly and satisfyingly as it opened, with the uber-funk fuzz of “Polly” marking it as best track on the album, a soft cooing-ballad that has features undertones of disenchanted realism under the guise of happy rhythms and horns. The album closes with “Follow” - the sonic sibling of “Polly” – setting Light On the Lake’s with as positive an outlook as any debut featuring lyrics like “I know I’ll hear the call any time…” that lend credence to the visionary nature of Light On the Lake as a whole. “Follow” allows the record to help establish Whitney as more than just another buzz band, but rather a supremely melancholic (but not miserable) introduction steeped with perspective that maintains an ultimately warm purview of the band’s future. Expect to see Light Upon the Lake on many a "year end" list, including Transverso's, as the record exemplifies the ideal dulcet tones of an indie band debut.