Whitney, AKA ex-Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich and ex-Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek, were responsible for one of 2016’s surprise packages in Light Upon the Lake. The debut LP was short, sweet, intricate and irresistible, breathing new life into US indie rock. Their sophomore effort – Forever Turned Around – was recently released, bringing with it everything that defined the band’s sound three years ago while giving it a little something new.
But that’s not to say that the framework isn’t the same. Once again, we’re treated to ten tracks, clocking in at around half an hour, with both a title track and instrumental in there somewhere. Yet the sound packed into this is a little more reigned in, the arrangements a little more delicate. Pre-released single ‘Used to Be Lonely’ is probably the album at its most spare; it’s defined by the tender acoustic noodling that it opens with. Sharing the story behind each track on their Facebook page, the band revealed that this one “started as a late-night jam session” and you can tell. Its unequivocal vulnerability makes sense in a context of early-hour loneliness.
But the album is largely hopeful. Highlight ‘Before I Know It’ is driven by the kind of stop-start rhythm that suggests Whitney are playing with their own formula. This album is less strictly the build from soft to loud, gentleness to cacophony in the way that the previous one was. There is a similar mix of horns, strings and percussion, but the timing of their introductions is a little less predictable this time. And Ehrlich and Kakacek may be at the centre of Whitney, but they perform as an eight-piece. I was fortunate enough to see their recent album release show at London’s MOTH Club; they could barely fit on the 150-capacity venue’s tiny stage. Live, these new tracks are warm and communal, as (positively) instrumentally crowded as they are on record.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that LP two often doesn’t quite reach the heights of one. There’s nothing on here quite as immediate as ‘The Falls’ or ‘No Matter Where We Go’, or quite as unforgettable as ‘No Woman’ or ‘Golden Days’. The enjoyment of these songs is a little more patient and contemplative. On Facebook, they acknowledged that these took individually longer to get right – lead single ‘Giving Up’ is the exception, which took just “one pass at lyrics”. Generally, the composition here seemed more concerned with detail, perhaps why there are more songs reaching the three-minute mark and none below two.
‘Giving Up’ is gorgeous but painful, liberating but wounded: “Waiting for the morning sun / Are you coming home, my love? […] Though we started losing touch / I’ve been hanging on because”. It’s a slight shame that, as so many bands do, Whitney released the two best songs on the album prior to its entire release. The other, ‘Valleys (My Love)’, does what the band do so great, supplying an irresistible hook but not depending on it, crafting a song around this that is piercing and transformative. It’s symptomatic of the thematic interest of the album generally – “I never wanna fade away” echoes “I’m afraid you’re letting go” in ‘Giving Up’. After all, as it says on the tin, Forever Turned Around is about falling in and out of love, rekindling, recovering, turning it around, finding your feet.
It’s also restless, looking forward as much as it is back. People like to talk about the anachronistic quality of Whitney – The New Yorker recently suggested that their songs “feel like little hideouts from history, carefully constructed by people in the process of living through it”; but they always re-arrange this history into something new. The palpable influence of ‘70s soft rock is always that: influence. The Neil Young nostalgia never becomes derivative. Ehrlich and Kakacek write from a position that’s concerned with balancing the old and the new. ‘Day & Night’ encapsulates this: “Now and then, I remember / There’s the end in sight”.
On Forever Turned Around, while with not the same immediacy and hit rate as Light Upon the Lake, Whitney give us ten more reminders that there aren’t many people in their corner of the music industry who can nail this balance like they do. Three years later, they’re still enjoying their golden hour, and it’s ours to share.