Can a duo be a supergroup? Maybe that’s a tongue-in-cheek designation for Whitney, the band composed of former Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek and former Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich. Both were standout members of their former bands; Kakacek never got his due in Smith Westerns, as singer Cullen Omori’s presence soaked up much of the adulation. Ehlrich, who looked about 11 years old behind the kit with UMO, was a long-limbed beast. Whatever reasons for their previous acts’ dissolution and split, the two have found each other and put together something simple but always invaluable: a great warm weather rock’n’roll record.
It’s hard to talk about Whitney without first talking about Girls, another sweet-and-sour rock duo that both UMO and Smith Westerns spent time on tour opening for. Girls breathed life into earnest folk-rock by writing simple, powerful songs about being in love with life and learning to enjoy the basic things. But they broke up after two albums, and their absence left an empty space that has never been filled. Whitney come closer than any band since.
Light Upon the Lake, their debut LP, is a short collection of short songs; half of them are made up of easygoing guitar flourishes, the other half feature woozy strings and slurred brass. This is the Corona of rock records, as Whitney consistently walk that fine line between identifiable and platitudinal. Take the chorus from most recent single “No Matter Where We Go”: “I can take you out/I wanna drive all around with you with the windows down/And we can run all right.” It’s so generically wistful that it could provoke an eyeroll, but it’s delivered with such gentle earnestness that it’s improbably touching. Light Upon the Lake operates in a universe of endlessly repeatable joy, with a touch of melancholy to keep it interesting. The songs could be about romantic love, but they’re open-ended enough to be whatever you want them to be.
The vocals are a harder sell. Ehrlich, assuming vocal duties here, is on the whinier, Muppet-ier side of things. The overall muffled effect of the recording doesn’t help to crystallize anything, either. It’s like someone’s stopped at a stoplight singing their heart out in their car with the windows up and you hear it from the sidewalk. It works great in terms of expressing earnestness but possibly not in terms of pleasantness. I like it because it feels very true. That said, I wouldn’t hold it against you if you weren’t turned off, at least initially.
Make it past that, though, and you’ll find most songs to be near flawless on a small scale, working the way a great short story does. The crisp edges of these songs betray people who really know how to play their instruments, but instead of flashing that fact, they back up, writing only in vivid, broad, easygoing pop-rock strokes. “Golden Days,” has all the elements of showiness—a guitar solo, extraneous brass, a singalong—but the song stays small and hummable. Low-key perfectionism is perhaps a humbler virtue than seeking the big, dynamic splash. But it has a way of sneaking in past our defenses and lingering longer—before we know, we’ve been singing that song under our breath for the better part of a year. Whitney might not reinvent anything, but they sound perfect right now, and it’s hard to argue with being in the right place at the right time.