Whitney (photo by Colin Matsui, PR)
When an artist decides to dedicate an entire album to someone else’s songs, the reaction from fans and critics will be mixed. Some will view the project as a means of fulfilling a recording contract, filling time between primary releases, or perhaps covering up a nasty case of writer's block. Others will view it as taking on the challenge of interpreting someone else’s work and redefining these songs into something entirely different.
The band Whitney has approached this new covers album as a chance to seize a very varied collection of songs, some drastically different from anything the band has ever produced on their own, and reshape them into songs that are distinctly Whitney.
Whitney is a band from Chicago consisting of the core songwriting duo of Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, both former members of Smith Westerns. When Smith Westerns split up in late 2014, Ehrlich and Kakacek remained together, quickly creating Whitney by year’s end. From the very beginning, Ehrlich, who is the lead singer and drummer, and Kakacek, who plays guitar, have surrounded themselves with a fluctuating group of supporting musicians, which has allowed them to easily perform live and sometimes record in the studio.
In 2016, Whitney issued their first album, Light Upon the Lake, which was produced by the band and Jonathan Rado of Foxygen. An accompanying album of demos, Light Upon The Lake: Demo Recordings, was then issued the next year. Their second, all-new album, Forever Turned Around, followed in 2019 and for that album, they turned to producers Rado and Megafaun's Brad Cook.
Now comes the third album, a cover songs collection titled Candid. Cover songs are nothing new for Whitney as they have always sprinkled others' tunes into their live sets and have also recorded a handful of them. At the beginning of 2020, Ehrlich and Kakacek gathered with their touring band to record another small batch of covers. That small batch turned into a full album, Candid.
Right out of the gate, Whitney reveals its intention to reinterpret material not typical of their singular sound. “Bank Head,” originally by Kelela, opens Candid, and finds Whitney transforming an electronic song into something sparse and ethereal.
Whitney then breaks out the guitars and trumpet on the breezy “A.M. AM,” written and originally recorded by Damien Jurado. Whitney mines deep to find “High on a Rocky Ledge,” written and first recorded by the blind musician, composer, poet, and inventor of musical instruments, Moondog. For decades, Moondog, whose real name was Louis Hardin, could be found busking on New York City’s streets and was informally known as “The Viking of 6th Avenue,” because he could always be seen on the street wearing a horned helmet and cloak. Whitney succeeds in reinventing Moondog’s tune by injecting a light touch of soul.
“Rain,” originally by the vocal trio SWV (Sisters With Voices), with a backing track based on bassist Jaco Pastorius’ “Portrait Of Tracy,” is another rich find and a song primed for Whitney’s breezy touch.
Two other attention-grabbing moments found on Candid include a gorgeous rendition of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” beautifully sung by Ehrlich and Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, and the Roches’ vocal masterstroke, “Hammond Song,” perfectly enhanced by Ehrlich’s soft falsetto. (On “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Crutchfield’s boyfriend, the singer and songwriter Kevin Morby, also engineered her vocals.)
Elsewhere on Candid, listen for Whitney’s take on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “Strange Overtones"; British singer and songwriter Labi Siffre’s “Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying"; and “Rainbows And Ridges,” written and recorded by the late Blaze Foley, the acclaimed country singer, songwriter, and poet.
Ehrlich and Kakacek are joined throughout Candid by Whitney’s expanded live lineup, featuring Malcolm Brown on keyboards, Josiah Marshall on bass, Will Miller on trumpet, and guitarists Print Chouteau and Ziyad Asrar.
In choosing the songs to cover, both Ehrlich and Kakacek selected tunes that inspired both themselves and their bandmates at various times in their lives. They made sure to stay out of a safe zone when making their selections, resulting in an album that finds Whitney challenging themselves to reinvent others' songs, as well as evolve as individual musicians and as a band. Whitney met that challenge head on, and the result is Candid.