The idea of the songwriting duo has seen countless fruitful iterations in the past. From Elton John and Bernie Taupin to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, collaborative songwriting has resulted in meshed creativity, propelling these acts and many others to success.
That’s why it’s so important to look around, even in your close circles, for musical collaborators. The psych-rock, dream-rock and experimental-indie scenes around the world seem to have figured this out and are getting tighter and tighter-knit as a community.
Fans of these genres have witnessed King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard team up with Mild High Club on “Sketches of Brunswick East,” Karen O and Parquet Courts “dance and f***” on “Milano,” and in 2016, the two well-networked members of Whitney released their first album as a band, “Light Across the Lake.” The project consists of former Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich and former Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek. During their time as roommates, they would divvy out roles in the songwriting process, efficiently becoming the powerhouse Whitney.
The duo writes music in the same way one would make a model airplane — with an arm of careful precision and smooth action. The gentle caress with which they stroked “Light Across the Lake” has carried over to their most-recent effort, “Forever Turned Around,” released Aug. 30. The more low fidelity aspects of “Light Across the Lake,” like the natural tape fuzz, have been exchanged for a sleeker production style, but the instrumental choices are very similar.
Whitney has always excelled at filling out the mix. The ever-widening orchestral string arrangements, horn sections and spacey keyboards that build throughout most tracks are nothing unfamiliar to Whitney. On the track “Valleys (My Love),” these careful artistic choices greet listeners like friendly strangers on the street, each with their own personality and intensity. The overwhelming result is an atmosphere of warmth and familiarity. The duo really intends to take listeners to a place they consider home.
Assisting in Whitney’s comfort campaign is the perky falsetto of Kakacek, which doesn’t switch to chest voice for virtually the entire album. His style could be imagined as a less eccentric and maniacal Thom Yorke whose spirit hasn’t been broken by the weight of the world. It’s no better exemplified than on the track “Giving Up,” which starts the album at its best. With the flow of any great Velvet Underground song and a bouncy bassline, the track is exactly what it needs to be — no more, no less. This technique couldn’t be classified as minimalism; it’s more of a testament to the deliberative nature of Whitney’s songwriting.
Even without Kakacek’s birdlike vocals, the band remains unique. The one instrumental track on the album, “Rhododendron,” teases with a hip-hop beat and then opens up the curtains, letting in a Latin-influenced horns section, giving each instrument its own time to shriek in the spotlight. The track might as well be straight out of the Heinz Kiessling songbook. This is what “elevator music” should be.
While Whitney may not have evolved much in the four-year break between its last album and “Forever Turned Around,” the familiar sound is more than welcome. Fans of the duo’s music have come to expect entertaining intricacies in the soundscape, and the band doesn’t disappoint. The album is performed and mixed like Steely Dan’s “Aja” for a new generation, with the same purpose in mind: to let the musical performances complement the diligently crafted songwriting with all the elegance Whitney seemingly effortlessly provides.