Never underestimate the drummer. Always the butt of band-themed jokes...
(Q: What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?)
Often, they’re marked as the hellraiser of the group, a legacy left by Keith Moon, Tommy Lee and Animal from The Muppets. But sometimes they have the habit of surprising us with a sharp ear for melody.
When Chicago’s criminally overlooked Smith Westerns disbanded in 2014 (after three sublime glam-inflected albums), surely little was expected from drummer Julien Ehrlich among the wider public. But that was probably a blessing. When not sitting behind the kit for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, he was quietly honing a new sound alongside his ex- bandmate, guitarist Max Kakacek. Together they shared songwriting duties, with Ehrlich taking lead vocals.
The result was Whitney’s wonderfully understated debut, 2016’s sleeper hit, ‘Light Upon The Lake’, a short but sweet collection of pastoral, sun-dappled songs. Its universal critical acclaim and cameo appearances on countless end-of-year lists mean that the follow up would be met with slightly more anticipation.
If they were feeling the pressure, though, it doesn’t seem to show. ‘Forever Turned Around’ is every bit as quietly confident and timeless as its predecessor. It offers no radical reinvention. Instead, it’s very much business as usual, if slightly more polished. It even follows the precedent of ten brief tracks, one being a brass-led instrumental. Ehrlich doesn’t have the most naturally characterful voice – a slightly nasal falsetto that sits just the right side of Neil Young parody – but it’s the perfect tool for their brand of Americana.
The term ‘gently anthemic’ sounds like a contradiction, but it sums up Whitney quite neatly – just listen to the “Woo hoo!” that announces the horn break in the final third of ‘Dave’s Song’ on their debut and it’ll make perfect sense.
There nothing quite as immediate as this or ‘Golden Days’ on ‘Forever Turned Around’. At first, some tracks feel like paler imitations of earlier highlights hidden behind a shinier veneer – the vocals in particular sit much better in the mix on this outing. Don’t be fooled by the lightness of touch, though: opener ‘Giving Up’ is far more uplifting than its title would suggest, and the subtle majesty of cuts like ‘Song For Ty’ and ‘Before I Know It’ swiftly reveals itself.
Those who found Whitney’s honey-coated tales of love, loss and yearning to be just a bit too smooth the first time around are likely only to strengthen their convictions. For those themselves yearning for another dose, this album should definitely satisfy.
Words: Felix Rowe
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