Show Review: Whitney at the Danforth Music Hall

By Stuart Oakes, Feature Photo via The Fader

       Last week, a Stereogum review of LA’s FYF music festival dismissed the “chill-bro indie” band Whitney as “aggressive in their banality.” That’s a pretty harsh take, especially for a band as agreeable as Whitney. Everyone digs them: my mom, my roommates, Sir Elton John (enough to have interviewed them for The New York Times).

        However, I want to use the FYF write-up’s take as a framing device for this review because as I was making my way to the Danforth Music Hall for the tastefully named Tito’s Handmade Vodka presents Whitney, I too was feeling a little cynical. Whitney are a supremely pleasant, easygoing band, but it’s hard to feel any particular investment in their music (they have one album, 2016’s Light Upon the Lake). They’re solid songwriters— Light Upon the Lake is a really well-crafted record that never wears out its welcome—and to call singer and drummer Julien Ehrlich a boring lyricist would be a little disingenuous considering that I dressed like Zach Cole Smith for two years and still cannot recall a single lyric from either Diiv album. In fact, despite Light Upon The Lake’s vaguely lo-fi posturing, Whitney’s music smacks of professionalism: the music is dynamic, the guitar lines are loose enough that you can tell that guitarist Max Kakacek can actually play his instrument, and the songs layer different timbres really well—Light Upon the Lake makes good use of its strings and excellent use of its horns. Just listen to the way “The Falls” settles into its Spoon-like groove and try and tell me that Whitney are a bunch of kids fumbling around in a neighbourhood garage—these dudes are extremely competent.

       The problem, or at least my problem, is that there’s nothing to grab onto in their music. (I have a sneaking suspicion that excellent sequencing makes their songs appear more memorable than they actually are: listen to “Light Upon the Lake” into “No Matter Where We Go,” for example—it’s great!—and then try to remember what the latter sounded like an hour later). When I pay attention to the album, I end up wishing that I was listening to bands like Youth Lagoon or Mutual Benefitother “chill” indie groups who reward active engagement with well-communicated vulnerability. So, was Stereogum right? I was curious to watch Whitney play and see whether what I was missing would make itself known in their live set.

        I arrived early enough for the opener, Toronto’s Sportsfan, and was surprised by how many people were already there (it was, like, 8:20PM). I was also surprised by how much I liked Sportsfan, who were good enough to scatter the snootiness that had led me to consciously not wear a dad hat in anticipation of standing out from the crowd (I did wear an anonymous, forest green button up because I am a skinny white guy with glasses who isn’t fooling anyone with that kind of nonsense). Sportsfan is a little difficult to sum up, mainly because they covered a lot of ground: they played some heavy garage stuff and some gentler singer-songwriter stuff. Singer and guitarist Ali Haberstroh had real chops; on stage, she was relaxed and quick to laugh, and her voice found a really nice space between Dilly Dally’s Katie Monks (I’m thinking “Candy Mountain”) and Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker (“Paul”). Guitarist Simon Outhit cut a great figure with his Jonny Greenwood-like hair and strong guitar work. The bassist had some good quips (sample: “This is a song by an artist who…isn’t here with us tonight…because he lives in New Jersey,” before introducing a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest”). The drummer had a really cute mustache. Together, they were tight, creative, and playful. I swear that one song with enjoyable, propulsive drumming was called “Eddie Vedder.” A more introspective song casually sprouted a The Edge-esque guitar line for about twenty seconds. In short, they looked like they were having fun.

        While watching the crew set up for the headliners, I got a chance to absorb how packed the Danforth was, which I had not been anticipating. Whitney also looked a little nonplussed by the size of the crowd. Ehrlich called it one of the largest headlining shows they had ever done, and seemed bemused throughout, particularly by a bra (I think) that someone later pitched at Kakacek. In defense of the masses, Whitney look like the kind of group that gets claimed by mothers as “our boys”—they had, collectively, the nicest smiles that I’ve ever seen.

        Whitney’s sound is genuine. Ehrlich’s voice, for example, sounded pretty much like it does on record: he’s got a pinched, high voice that might be described as an acquired taste if it didn’t fit so neatly with the rest of their palette. Otherwise, they were clearly talented. Ehrlich balanced drumming and singing duties, Kakacek is as strong a guitarist as I had imagined, and the other four players (on keys, brass, bass, and guitar) sounded just as together as the songs do on record. They were a touch dancier live, and seemed generally pleased to be there; keyboard player Malcolm Brown appeared particularly (and adorably) thrilled by the crowd.

        They played most of the songs from Light Upon the Lake, two new songs, and two covers, including the Golden Girls theme. “Polly” in particular was a highlight, with the band’s excellent timing tracing out the clouds that the horn then parted. “Golden Days” and “Light Upon the Lake” got big responses as well, and brass player Will Miller’s work even saved the kind-of boring instrumental “Red Moon.” The first new song, about depression, would not have been out of place of the album—in other words, more of the same, but just as well-crafted. Unfortunately, the lyrics proved to be a weak link. Hearty crooning broke out every so often from the audience, but always during the wordless vocals; in other words, people wanted to sing, but no one could remember the words. It didn’t faze the crowd; the big single, “No Woman,” got interrupted by roughly thirty or forty seconds of screaming, with the band standing awkwardly until Ehrlich gestured for everyone to quiet down.

        As I made my way home, I started wondering about the value of pleasantness and all that jazz, and how I can justify liking other “pleasant,” arguably banal bands—Real Estate comes to mind—when Whitney leaves me a little cold (the concert hadn’t provided any definite answers). Is it just a matter of taste? Is it a matter of writing better songs, or figuring out what they want to say? I do think Light Upon the Lake is too solid a record to be dismissed easily, and I don’t think what Whitney is doing is tritepleasant music has always been easy to mock, and they’re better than a lot of pleasant music. I also know that I can put their record on when I’m playing cards with my roommates and everyone will have a good time. I’ll leave you to decide how that shakes out in the grand scheme of things, but I’d go with let ‘em live. God knows, I wish more bands were as nice as they seem.

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