The Whitsundays, a young band from Alberta, Canada, make no qualms about their anachronistic Anglophilia. Though the main force behind the band, Paul Arnusch, has a history of performing with post-rock, post-punk bands like Faunts and the Floor, from the start it’s obvious his new project’s primarily interested in creating timeless pop music.
And this ‘60s AM radio pop can be utterly charming. If the Whitsundays never quite reach the level of Camera Obscura, it’s difficult to post blame. That’s a high bar to match. It’s enough to say that these songs are confident and not in any way pretentious. The band’s not setting out to change the face of popular music - it’s just giving an old form a bit of a brush-up, and betting that some people still find it appealing. It’s a safe bet, because the backbone of blues never really left rock ‘n’ roll. YThere’s gotta be an unelucidated physiological mechanism linking melody with those mysterious pleasure centers in our brain.
It’s no surprise the group operates within strictly conventional song structures and with entirely familiar chord progressions. “Already Gone”, the lead single, may be the most successful on the album, with the basslines of the Zombies but an added dimension. Arnusch’s voice has a floating quality and a more modern sensibility than we’re used to hearing from this kind of music. Of course the Beatles are heroes of the Zombies, we knew that from the outset; Lennon or McCartney’s influence comes in waves, sometimes stronger, sometimes more distant. On “Sorry James”, it’s a tidal wave: even Arnusch’s pronunciation of consonants mirrors that English ping. But referential as it may be, the songwriting is assured. Quick changes of texture and feeling are pulled off throughout the record with ease, and though the album’s short at under 35 minutes, it’s also continually interesting.
But when the band attempts a little experimentation or tries to mess with the formula, things begin to fall apart. The slow arpeggios at the opening of “Bring it on Home”, ripped straight from early Radiohead, give way to an ill-advised middle section in which the low octave doubling of the vocal line rings a tad hokey. The marriage of earnest, smooth tenor vocals and the strong acoustic bass sound likewise doesn’t suit “Antisocial”, which is really trying to be a late-‘90s power pop tune. And “The Ways of the Sweet Talking Boys” wallows in the ‘60s sound without a viable payoff. The jazzy synth solo may be intended ironically, but there’s no real way to tell, and it comes across without any real conviction. It’s almost as if the band has a conception of the way this retro pop should sound, and has gone about the task of matching that as accurately as possible without much real feeling. Compare that to a group like the Magic Numbers, whose sweet ballads always ring true, and you’ll hear a very discernible difference.
So the Whitsundays are best in their sweetest, most nostalgic mood. The group, in its current incarnation, won’t ever bowl you over with a vital new take on old pop forms. They seem content with honest, solid songwriting and a few catchy hooks. If that’s enough for you, you’ll be more than satisfied with The Whitsundays.