It's tough to imagine a debut as confident, masterful and full of replay value as Whitney's "Light Upon The Lake," which, as far as Chicago albums go, is as close to a lock for best of the year as you can get this early in 2016. With this 10-track effort, the self-described "country soul" seven-piece jumps off '70s rock 'n' roll and Americana and adds a refreshingly modern but also timeless take on those well-worn touchstones.
Granted, to call this just a debut doesn't capture the bigger picture. While all members are somewhere between 22 and 26 years old, each knows what it means to be in a band. Most notably, lead guitarist and co-songwriter Max Kakacek and singer-drummer Julien Ehrlich (Unknown Mortal Orchestra) were members of the now-defunct Chicago garage-pop band Smith Westerns before it infamously fizzled out in 2014. From those two to trumpeter Will Miller (The O'My's), Malcolm Brown (Touching Voids), rhythm guitarist Print Chouteau (Bass Drum of Death) and beyond, all come from disparate musical backgrounds, but together they're one of the most cohesive young units in rock music, especially live. There's their admitted influences of Jim Ford and Bob Dylan's "Nashville Skyline," but there's also a little bit of former tourmate Kevin Morby and even Shania Twain (no, seriously).
At its heart, "Light Upon the Lake" is a road record, a personal journey through heartbreak and figuring things out. "I left drinking on the city train/To spend some time on the road," Ehrlich's soft falsetto coos, opening up first track "No Woman" before singing, "I've been going through a change/I might never be sure." The way the song gradually builds, with Kakacek's leads, Miller's brilliant horn blasts and the strings all weaving together, pairs up as a perfect opener to what follows. From there, he looks back on a failed relationship, pining for what was lost on "Golden Days" and on the title track, during which he wonders, "Will life get ahead of me?" However, the most affecting lyric comes on "Follow," a eulogy for his grandfather on which he sings, "When it’s coming to an end/At least the rain won’t come again."
Coming in at 31 minutes, "Light Upon the Lake" packs in a remarkable amount for such a lean runtime. From the extended jam closing out "Dave's Song," the summer anthem-infectiousness of "No Matter Where We Go" and the subtle balladry of the title track, to the Muscle Shoals-inspired guitar solo on "On My Own" and the string arrangements from Marrow's Macie Stewart throughout, or any of the other dozen highlight moments on this record, it's the most fully realized half-hour of music released so far this year. It's the kind of album you can't listen to just once.
4 stars (out of four)
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