Chicago Duo Transcends Genre on Two Albums

While oftentimes simplistic, Whitney’s music is extremely versatile.


Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek started the band Whitney, following the break up of the band Smith Westerns. (Courtesy of Facebook)

Collin Bonnell, Opinions Editor

I spent much of this summer trying to expand my musical taste and find new artists. While I was very successful and entered this school year with a newfound love for the music of Tame Impala, Pond, Vulfpeck and Glass Animals, Whitney stands out as my favorite discovery.

Whitney, an indie folk duo from Chicago, began as a project by two former members of the Smith Westerns, a garage rock band, after the Smith Westerns broke up.

Their first album, 2016’s “Light Upon the Lake,” signaled a vast departure from the sound of the Smith Westerns, with a heavy focus on relaxed folk.

Many of the songs on their first album include a liberal use of horns and what sounds like a pedal steel guitar. The entire album is also cast in a blended sound which makes it resemble Bon Iver’s early albums.

Whitney’s second album, “Forever Turned Around,” was released on Aug. 30, 2019, and represents a further embrace of this approach to folk.

While often simplistic, Whitney’s music is extremely versatile. I find it interesting that I first discovered them through my psychedelic playlist on Spotify rather than through my folk playlist.

As soon as I heard the recommended song, a cover of Glen Campbell’s classic “Southern Nights,” I added it to my psychedelic, indie and folk playlists.

I rarely put songs on multiple playlists, but the sound of the track blends so well with each of these genres.

Whitney’s strategic use of instruments, ranging from horns to keyboards to acoustic guitars allows their sound to blend within multiple genres.

At the same time, the band employs these instruments in such a way that they retain a sense of simplicity.

The subject matter of the songs on “Light Upon the Lake,” range from the disillusioned narrative of “No Woman,” which details the protagonist’s flight to California and a road trip across the state after a break up, to the nostalgia of “Golden Days,” which contemplates the narrator’s desire to return to a past relationship.

Whitney’s second album tones the narrative nature of their music back a bit in favor of simplicity and fewer lyrics. “Forever Turned Around” has a more consistent theme centered on perseverance, with “Giving Up” expressing a desire to struggle through the lows of life, and “Valleys (My Love)” focusing on the protagonist’s desire to adapt to the changes around him. The album is more homogenus and relaxed than “Light Upon the Lake,” yet I think it holds up better because of its more minimalist sound and lucidity.

While many of the songs on “Forever Turned Around” only include two stanzas separated by a recurring chorus, this lack of lyrical content enriches the song and adds to its value as background noise. The long instrumentals between stanzas also allow the listener to focus on the melody of the songs and reflect upon the album’s theme of perseverance and cycles.

One of the reasons I love folk music is that songs from artists like Whitney don’t require our immediate attention, and allow listeners to focus on other tasks without being disrupted by some vast change in the music.

Whitney’s new album is great in this regard, as it doesn’t demand our attention in the same way that recent works from other folk musicians do.

“Forever Turned Around” comes at a time when many folk musicians are trying to embrace a more electric and complicated sound, and Whitney’s decision to reject this trend and embrace a simplistic approach to music shows the value of their minimalist style.

The band is continuing to make great and relaxed background noise at a time when such music is hard to come by.
Whitney is all the better for their decision to embrace simplicity, and “Forever Turned Around” stands out as a testament to the duo’s ability to produce great folk music.