When guitarist Max Kakacek, formerly of Smith Westerns, and lead vocalist and drummer Julien Ehrlich, ex-Unknown Mortal Orchestra, announced they were joining forces to form Whitney, an immediate buzz followed. Expectations were further heightened when Pitchfork gave their first single “No Woman” a “best new music” designation while The Guardian, Paste Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, The Line of Best Fit, and others did in-depth features. For the past three months, Whitney was the “IT” band who could do nothing wrong, which could also be said about their long-awaited debut album.
Light Upon the Lake meets and even exceeds the most optimistic expectations. It is a summertime album, albeit not one would necessarily consider for present times (i.e., it is not an over-sampled electronic record) but rather during the great Laurel Canyon era of the late ’60s. Light Upon the Lake is folk-rock for a new generation, yet at the same time it will satisfy older generations seeking to hear a modernized version of Jackson Browne; Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; and other greats of the time.
“No Woman” was the perfection introduction to Whitney’s reinterpretation of this classic era, and it not surprisingly opens the album. Like the songwriting of nearly five decades ago, the song is introspective and contemplative, where beneath the analogy of a long trip Kakacek and Ehrlich share a moment of sobriety following the end of a relationship. “The Falls”, a Woods-esque tune in its upbeat vibrancy, is an extension of that sober moment, a yearning for forgiveness and re-connection in order to overcome the pain that is being felt inside.
That pain is further repeated on the earnest “Golden Days”, a sublime tune and one of the album’s highlights, which drips with the beautiful poignancy in sound and songwriting of Jackson Browne. The addition of the horns and the slide guitar is brilliant, heightening the drama, pain, and euphoria in Ehrlich’s vocals. Yet, the use of brass can also add a light, nonchalant feel, as heard on the “On My Own”, a song about longing for the one who got away.
“Dave’s Song“ is the one song on the album that adapts the classic, late-’60s / early ’70s folk-rock sound. The song evokes images of a young James Taylor. If stripped down to an acoustic number, it might stir memories of Taylor strumming the guitar and singing “You Can Close Your Eyes” or Elton John tickling the keys to a song on his great album, Madman Across the Water. “No Matter Where We Go”, on the other hand, adds a bit of a southern flair to complement the upbeat tempo. The song adopts a style akin to White Denim, but at the same time, like “The Falls”, there is a Woods-vibe, particularly with respect to Ehrlich’s high falsetto that mirrors Jeremy Earl’s vocals.
Imitation, though, is not what Light Upon the Lake is about. While there is much that feels familiar – the sunny disposition and the folk-rock sound – Whitney have crafted an album that feels fresh and vibrant, especially during this era of synthesizers and electronic gadgetry. It is this classic sound that has so many within the print and online media as well as their surging fanbase excited about what they have achieved on Light Upon the Lake and what lies ahead of them. And as Ehrlich sings on the album’s stirring finale, “Follow”, “I will follow…you… and I’ll follow…you”, these lines just might be the mantra of Whitney’s followers now and to come.
Featured image by Sandy Kim.
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