There is a pleasant feeling of substance to a hissy analog record, a sense that you can bundle the track up and fit it in the palm of your hand. When first listening to Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake, I was immediately captivated, yet wondered how real that anima was, or whether it was something I guiltily mapped onto what I knew to be a reel-to-reel recording. Yet, after taking the album for more than a few rides, it was easy to grasp the real musical elements which make this album stick.
Whitney’s debut record, Light Upon the Lake falls at an intersection of a few great sounds: mellow Brit noodle rock a la Ultimate Painting, reel-to-reel Kinks-core a la Foxygen or Twin Peaks’ latest, and orchestral folk of the likes of Mutual Benefit. Each has been found over the past few years on the odd jewel of a record, providing a nice kick of gooey listening. Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake is a taut first effort, bundling these handcrafted, mid-fi sounds in support of a beautiful collection of songs. For any indie fan mourning the loss of other home recordists Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Tame Impala to a heavier weight class in 2015, or the dissolution of Whitney member’s former band, Smith Westerns, Whitney’s sound could be exactly what you’re looking for.
But if you come to Whitney to fill a void, you’ll stay for these melodies. Songs like “Golden Days” and early single, “No Woman”, grab you by the scruff of the neck and pelt you with sunny vibes. Julian Ehrlich’s vocal melodies have a Foster-esque efficiency, and often a throat-clenching blend of the meticulous form of Elliott Smith and the laid-back exuberance of the Zombies. Some guitar and trumpet melodies, as on second verse of “Golden Days”, or the break in last track, “Follow” are like a muscular Swedish masseuse finally hitting the spot. They are songs to safely get lost in, even after dozens of plays.
As in all tape recordings, this one recorded with Foxygen’s analog-till-he-dies Jonathan Rado, the recording process is a big part of the sound. This album is an example of how that sense of commitment can translate into great tracks. Guitar solos are pushed to their depths of feeling; guitar arrangements are sensitively threaded; overlaid string and trumpet parts offer satisfying lifts. One-time touring drummer for UMO, charged with recreating Nielson’s early breakbeats, Ehrlich is a capable drummer who quietly roots many of the tracks. Even the kit-less songs groove well.
A big part of these songs’ appeal is the youth-bruised character in the lyrics. I remember a friend once distilling the trajectory of R.E.M’s popularity down to the idea that once Michael Stipe stopped being introspective and angsty (circa 1994’s Monster), his music lost the reason why fans all flocked to it. There’s something about emo panic and struggle (“Losing My Religion”) that draws us in. Troubled Elliott Smith had that same magnetism. And Whitney offers a similar connection.
Just like R.E.M’s breakthrough unplugged record Out Of Time, the record gleams in the twilight of its songwriter, Julian Ehrlich’s, boyish angst, before it has been lost, but once it’s uncomfortable potency has begun to wane. It’s easy to imagine, if he had made the album any younger, it might have lacked the self possession that marks the album’s happier moments, wherein Ehrlich chronicles the summits of pre-adulthood. On “No Woman” the refrain proudly states, “I stopped drinking on the city train.” Yet, luckily, these joys still contain within them the promise of residual crisis. On the album’s ballad, “Light Upon the Lake”, Ehrlich wonders, “Will life get ahead of me?” For the moment, he’s on the horse, but he fully expects to fall off.
As someone on the verge of 30, I found in Light Upon the Lake a version of emo that I could fully relate to, and a brand of bittersweet that didn’t belong to any moment but the present. A welcome presence in the story of summer 2016, Whitney will be an underdog I’ll be rooting for well into their sophomore release.