A soundtrack for autumnal reflection

Whitney are a Chicago indie-rock band comprising (far left) Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek (left).
Whitney are a Chicago indie-rock band comprising (left) Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek (right).PHOTO: SECRETLY CANADIAN




Secretly Canadian

4 stars

Sometimes, a band comes along and captures the longing for a human connection and that lull between nostalgia and facing a scary, more adult future.

Whitney, the Chicago indie-rock act fronted by guitarist Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, is that band. Their 2016 debut album, Light Upon The Lake, parachuted into the year's best-of lists.

The group toured around the world for three years, including at Laneway Festival Singapore in 2017, with the audience humming along to such doozies as The Falls and Golden Days.

They still sound chilled on their second album Forever Turned Around, but this time, a veil of wistfulness is draped over the 10 songs, largely written on the road.

All good things must end and they are hanging onto each diaphanous ray of the sunset. Ruing the passing of time and the ebb and flow of relationships, the duo and their limber touring band - comprising bassist Josiah Marshall, keyboardist Malcolm Brown, trumpeter Will Miller, and guitarists Print Chouteau and Ziyad Asrar - have proffered a soundtrack for autumnal reflection.

"Though we started losing touch/I've been hanging on because/You're the only one I love/Even when you're giving up," Ehrich sings in Giving Up, in a nasal falsetto which should not work, but does. It is not a vocal tour de force, but it is relatable and perfect here.

Whitney are a Chicago indie-rock band comprising (far left) Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek (left).

The music begins mid-tempo, guitars caressing and drums gently galloping by, until a significant pause at 1min 46sec, where the track changes gear, and the trumpets kick in. The mood lifts, even if he continues to chant "giving up".

The understatement belies the commitment to the craft and to the intra-band harmony. Used To Be Lonely is a tribute to the brotherly bond between Ehrlich and Kakacek.

"Well it made no sense at all/Until you came along," Ehrlich asserts in the softest of croons, as the song stirs to life, with the gentlest of guitar flecks. Midway, the song blooms into an intricate layering of horns, guitars and percussion.

In Song For Ty, the band prove adept at sounding melancholy and sanguine at the same time. Addressing an old friend, Ehrlich wonders over subtly woven woodwind and strings: "Tell me everything stays the same/Will we meet again down the way?"

Just when you think everything is going south, he pulls things into perspective with a catchy chorus: "Anything could happen."

The band have found their special groove, swaying along, never once waving a proselytising finger or pulling you along. Instead, their primary aim is to put everyone at ease and letting them make up their own minds.

Valleys (My Love) is another of Whitney's minor-key confessionals. "Maybe life is the way it seems," he realises, "I feel like I'm holding on/To a place in your heart that's long gone."

The bittersweet sentiment is enhanced by a particularly lovely melody line, illumed by strings and a toe-tapping rhythm that makes you look at the larger picture and think: Maybe we will be fine after all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2019, with the headline 'A soundtrack for autumnal reflection'. Print Edition | Subscribe