“Light Upon the Lake,” the debut LP by Chicago-based pop duo Whitney, sounds like it was beamed straight out of 1977, fuzzy and sweet and a bit blown out. You can almost picture the songs blaring from the speakers of a portable radio on a sun-dappled August afternoon.
If you’re paying attention to the current indie rock scene, you’ll know this is nothing new. The spirit of the ’70s is alive and well, with artists like Ariel Pink, Mac DeMarco and Foxygen embracing the melodic soft rock of Todd Rundgren, Fleetwood Mac and “Surf’s Up”-era Beach Boys
“I think a lot of the people doing that are similar ages,” said Whitney guitarist Max Kakacek, “and we all grew up learning to play guitar in the time of Blink-182 and the White Stripes and the Strokes, the mainstream rock ‘n’ roll bands of the time. I think it’s somewhat of a reaction to those bands being heavier and faster, and the people who grew up on it are leaning toward this softer, more relaxed approach to that genre.”
Whitney, which performs at the Bartlett on Saturday, is the latest group to channel those long-ago sounds, but their influences run deeper than the artists you’d find in a record store dollar bin. Kakacek points to songwriters like Lewis, Jim Ford and Donnie and Joe Emerson, obscure artists whose work has been given new life by small labels like Seattle’s Light in the Attic and Portland’s Mississippi Records.
“I was interested in these weird, ambiguous artists,” Kakacek said, “these private press records that had gotten lost and were recently discovered and reissued.”
Kakacek and singer-drummer Julian Ehrlich formed Whitney after the dissolution of their critically acclaimed band Smith Westerns. Remnants of the earlier group are present on “Light Upon the Lake,” but Whitney’s songs aren’t quite as dense or tightly wound. Kakacek said he and Ehrlich deliberately worked with musical elements they weren’t immediately comfortable with: They utilized brass and strings for the first time, and they avoided using the reverb effects they were so fond of.
“We wanted everything to sound present and punchy, and for the musical performances to stand out,” Kakacek said. “We were trying to challenge ourselves with things we didn’t have experience with, and we were learning how to use them as we went along.”
That approach defines the album as a whole, which is a document of two young artists trying to find themselves after a significant creative disintegration. “Light Upon the Lake” floats along on a reverie of AM pop hooks, but it also possesses a melancholic undercurrent that occasionally overcasts the sunshine of its melodies.
“I’ve been sleeping alone / I’ve been going through a change,” Ehrlich sings on the dreamy album opener “No Woman.” “I might never be sure / I’m just walking in a haze / I’m not ready to turn.” Despite its jaunty, plunky piano line, “The Falls” laments, “Now I’m not too sure I know / Which way the rising river flows.”
“We were trying to make it as honest as possible,” Kakacek said. “We were both dealing with breakups, obviously. It’s a somewhat transitional period in our lives. One of the songs was written about Julian’s grandfather dying in the middle of winter. It’s about things that were happening to us, and trying to put them in a general sense so that people could relate to them.”
Though Ehrlich and Kakacek are Whitney’s primary creative force, the band is touring as a six piece. Kakacek said the live songs don’t deviate too far from the recorded versions, but the energy of the group is different than what you hear on the album.
“We try to change up the performances a lot and play off each other, keep up a dialogue between instruments,” Kakacek said. “The structured parts are there, but we try to mess around with each other a little onstage. There are times when we mess around and totally botch a part, but there are also times when it comes off great. But that’s the fun of it. We’re trying to explore those musical ideas together with an audience, and if there’s a huge mistake, we try to have fun with it and deal with it as it comes.”
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