Following the success of Whitney's breakthrough debut album, Light Upon the Lake, songwriters Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek returned to the warm, mellow, pastoral vibe they had established on that record for the follow-up, Forever Turned Around. Both albums reached the Top 25 of Billboard's alternative chart. What wasn't clear to outsiders at the time was that the duo struggled to complete the latter album, which followed a blueprint they felt they'd outgrown. A romantic breakup, a move across the country (and back again), and pandemic shutdowns ultimately gave the Chicagoans the opportunity to give voice to immediate musical instincts and ultimately refashion their sound. While not a complete reinvention -- a languid, easygoing tone and Ehrlich's airy falsetto are still at the heart of their songs -- the resulting SPARK represents a surprising design overhaul on a 12-song production dominated by lush electronics and indebted to cited influence Dilla. It was produced by John Congleton and Forever Turned Around's Brad Cook. It's a potentially jarring shift for those familiar with Whitney's original folk- and country-rock inspirations, even on a song like "REAL LOVE" that incorporates familiar timbres like Wurlitzer, guitar, and acoustic percussion, which they mix in this case with programmed beats and synths. A last-minute addition to the album, the forward-looking track was penned on the brink of widespread pandemic re-openings. Much of the rest of the record is breakup-minded, including opener "NOTHING REMAINS," which processes Ehrlich's appealingly organic vocals right out of the gate. Its booming, bass-reinforced opening beats set the stage for a slow reveal that adds guitar, then ringing keys, and layers of horns and strings for a dreamy introduction that feels at once familiar and like something contorted into a remix. (The album's opening words are: "Troubles never go away/But they change.") Whitney broaden their experimentation on later tracks, like the druggy, drum-less "TWIRL," alt-R&B-tinged "SELF," and "LOST CONTROL," which channels elements of '70s Rundgren and Harrison within its fat-beats scheme. Despite some earthier moments, the remix impression is ultimately inescapable, as SPARK's configuration seems at odds with Ehrlich's distinctively balmy voice, an asset they often distort and sometime repurpose ("TWIRL") to fit the transformed palette. While SPARK's curio-like qualities may win the duo new listeners, and songwriting tendencies could offer a lifeline to certain established fans, it's a change -- signified by its all-caps stylization -- sure to alienate many as well.
by Marcy Donelson