Photo Courtesy of Secretly Canadian
The one-of-a-kind combination of indie rock and soul that defines Whitney is largely, if not entirely, the result of its two core members, drummer/singer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek. Following the demise of their former band, Smith Westerns, the Chicago-based musical architects released two excellent albums under their new name and eclipsed their past successes.
Now, for the songwriting duo’s third LP titled Candid, Ehrlich and Kakacek transfer their spotlight toward the band’s touring musicians while reinterpreting ten cherished songs from square one. What initially started last January as an attempt to capture the energy of Whitney’s live performances by recording two or three covers eventually ended up as a full-fledged project, featuring unearthed folk songs from the 70s to modern offerings fewer than ten years old.
Candid establishes the record’s expansive full band sound with Kelela’s tender 2013 track, “Bank Head.” Whitney converts the dreamy R&B number into a sparse soul ballad that strips away its hi hat cymbals and electronic beat in favor of rich piano chords and pulsing physical drums.
Ehrlich’s high-register singing voice, however, perfectly complements the original, though his smooth, soaring vocals shine even more on tracks such as Moondog’s innocent, folksy ballad “High on a Rocky Ledge” and the buoyant melodies SWV’s classic heater, “Rain,” which also touts a luscious bass line fashioned after the original’s Jaco sample.
Although Ehrlich’s singing and Kakacek’s catchy guitar riffs populated most of Whitney’s first two albums, Candid more often yields to an ensemble dynamic with appropriately-placed solo flourishes. Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield makes a remarkable appearance on the second verse of the Appalachian standard, “Take Me Home, Country Road,” giving the rollicking cover a campfire sing along feel, with her gorgeous delivery of the lyrics “painted on the sky” stealing the show.
Whitney also utilizes Will Miller’s sweet, drawn out trumpet playing on songs such as the joyful and declarative cover of Damien Jurado’s “A.M. A.M.” — fans of Wild Wild Country might recognize the original — and especially on the album highlight, “Hammond Song” by The Roches.
Although the original version of “Hammond Song” is full of rich vocal harmonies, Ehrlich’s impassioned singing matches the intensity of several voices alone and Miller’s mid-song trumpet solo provides the ideal melodic release. To an extent, Ehrlich’s vocal inflections on “Hammond Song” sound like he’s posing the questions the song asks inward, which emphasizes the original’s introspective nature. And much like the original, Whitney’s cover is infinitely replayable.
There are a few places throughout Candid’s 33 minute runtime, however, that fail to creatively reinvent its source material. The cover of “Strange Overtones,” written by David Byrne and Brian Eno, never feels too far away from a Talking Heads song. Likewise, while the band might personally enjoy the slide guitar-punctuated instrumental “Something Happen” and the encouraging Labi Siffre tune “Crying, Living, Laughing, Lying,” but they lack the communal energy and experimentation found elsewhere on the record. None of these are bad covers, but to a certain extent, they feel shoehorned into the tracklist with little relation to more thoughtful covers.
At Candid’s best, Whitney uses its full roster to prove that great songwriting transcends genres and, as Kakacek demonstrates with his guitar on the closer, Blaze Foley’s “Rainbows and Ridges,” that it’s possible to speak volumes without singing a single word. But ultimately, Whitney’s third album pays tribute to a handful of beloved songs that also help to decipher the band’s fine-tuned blend of styles.