Whitney Find Their 'SPARK' in Slick Studio Experimentation

Whitney Find Their 'SPARK' in Slick Studio Experimentation
In the early 2010s, Smith Westerns represented indie rock's new direction. Alongside other evolving acts (and tourmates) Foxygen, Girls and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, an entire scene was being built on glittering keys, soft-focus production and wistful vocals, drawing more from Usher than Unwound. Under their Whitney moniker, former Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich pushed this evolution further — parting fully from the flashy riffs and cymbal-cracking beats favoured by their forebears, the duo were more interested in creating a singular mood than promoting their individual contributions. 

This sense of sonic shaping might be what led Whitney to bill themselves as "performers" in the liner notes of their debut LP, 2016's Light Upon the Lake. On SPARK, their fourth LP (including a 2020 covers album), the Chicago two-piece have mastered their studio sound, bringing in a slew of new styles and instruments while inviting Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Big Red Machine) back to co-record the album with veteran producer John Congleton. The addition of Congleton — known for his wildly diverse portfolio that ranges from Baroness to Nelly Furtado — might suggest a level of musical adventurousness. But SPARK really just represents a consolidation of ideas and sounds for Whitney, as they smooth over their edges and crispen their sound. 

For the uninitiated, a first listen to silken, lofty opener "NOTHING REMAINS" resembles almost nothing of the jittery, insecure branch of indie rock invented by Jonathan Richman and Daniel Johnston, proving that Whitney now share more in common with the lush '70s L.A. studio musician scene than their scrappy progenitors. From the echoing, doubled-tracked vocals of "TWIRL," the beefy, soul-assisted backing vocals of first single, "REAL LOVE," or the Doobie Brothers bounce of "LOST CONTROL," the duo flex a newfound confidence, aiming to scratch a different kind of itch. Part of what makes the LP so successful is Kakacek and Ehrlich's commitment to their craft, as tasteful guitar licks ("BLUE"), swelling strings (album standout "MEMORY"), boom bap drums ("NEVER CROSSED MY MIND") and glistening keyboards ("SELF"), never coming off ironic or inauthentic. 

Written while Kakacek and Ehrlich quarantined together for 14 months, much of the LP (thankfully) doesn't contain the unfocused trappings of a "pandemic record," as the duo appear to have focused their energy on quality over quantity. However, portions of SPARK may be too slick for its own good, as basic lovelorn lyrics that fill songs like "BACK THEN" ("Blue skies don't feel so wrong / Those times have come and gone") and the back end's more drippy melodies ("HEART WILL BEAT") go down a bit too easily. But on SPARK, Whitney prove themselves to be in the indie rock game for the long run, even if they've outgrown the type of indie rock that birthed them. (Secretly Canadian)