I grew up in a pretty small town. It’s not quite a suburb, and there’s only one stoplight. There’s not much to see, but there is a waterfall, located just a few twisty backroads from the town center, in the middle of the forest. The waterfall itself is not very tall, but it’s nice to look at, and empties out into a deep pool that’s perfect for swimming — or, if you’re brave, for jumping into.
When I was a kid, there was an almost mythical quality to the falls, as it was known, which acted as the setting for any number of school bus urban legends about debauched parties and tragic deaths. By the time we were old enough to drive, though, the falls was just a place to cool off when it was too hot, a peaceful spot to kill time when school let out and we wanted to be anywhere but home. It was no longer magic, but it was ours.
There’s a track named “The Falls” on Light Upon The Lake, the charmingly old school first album by the Chicago rock band Whitney. It’s a mostly upbeat song, with happy keys, twangy guitars, and earnest-sounding brass horns. The lyrics are less sunny, with allusions to all-night drug binges mixed up with loose descriptions of a picturesque rural setting. Cause now I’m not too sure I know/ Which way the rising river flows/ On the night I lose control, sings Julien Ehrlich, the band’s drummer and primary vocalist, in his trademark near-falsetto, which sometimes recalls Neil Young. It’s a good example of something the six-piece does particularly well across the record: burying melancholy underneath rootsy arrangements and jangly hooks.
In an interview with The FADER from last year, Ehrlich and the band’s guitarist co-founder, Max Kakacek — who both spent time playing in great mp3-blog-era bubblegum rock group Smith Westerns — discussed how some of the demos that would come to be album tracks were conceived in a middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin cabin, and were written from the perspective of a fictional “old-ass dude living alone,” Kakacek said. “He’s very sad and distraught, but he has good times, too,” added Ehrlich, who also used to drum for Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
It seems like every couple of years, a low-key rock album comes out that gets this happy-sad vibe just right, usually thanks to rich instrumentation, lyrics about nature, and a very conscious emphasis placed on mood. But while you could imagine a strip mall or a record store just past the green aisles that suburban New Jersey band Real Estate sings about on their 2011 album Days, the setting I associate with Whitney’s worn-sounding songs is off the beaten path, deep in the woods — someplace without streetlights.
Whitney has a knack for keeping things vague. These aren't exactly rambly American storytellers, and that brevity works to their advantage on Light Upon The Lake. They’ve made it easy for listeners to take the emotions that each song conjures and apply them to their own existence — particularly the unshakable longing for a nondescript simpler time, or those golden days, as Ehrlich calls them. That nostalgic feeling permeates much of album, even the happiest songs. Ehrlich wonders Will life get ahead of me? on the nimbly plucked title track, and “Polly” is essentially a languid, folk-rock antithesis to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys: If only we were young/ You’d make me feel warm, he sings. Even “Red Moon,” a jazzy instrumental from the album’s second half, feels wistful.
Light Upon The Lake’s gooier sentiments might have been corny, had the melodies they’re hooked to not been so warm and well-crafted. You don’t really have to be from a small town to latch onto these songs, though maybe it helps. Whitney understands that everyone has their own version of “the falls,” a quiet place, out of the way, where everything moves a little slower.