Whitney, Cullen Omori, and the Curious Paths of Post-Buzz Buzzbands

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The rise and fall of a young band has become a signature trajectory of rock ‘n’ roll. Starting with The Beatles, we’ve seen countless examples of the same story: a group of preternaturally gifted teenage buddies comes together to form a band that, after the requisite brief stint of character-building gigs, achieves wide acclaim. The teenage musicians in question duly behave as teenagers do, becoming infamous for their tour antics, etc. After however many albums, the hype cools off and the band breaks up. Former members splinter into factions. The lead singer releases an album that sounds like the band’s would-be follow-up; the guitarist releases an album that’s equally strong and sounds nothing like the band.

The group we’re discussing today certainly fits the rise-and-fall model, but they never reached anything close to Beatles-level heights, either at the peak of the hype or in their subsequent solo endeavors. The band in question? Onetime buzz beauties Smith Westerns, and the post-breakup albums are Cullen Omori’s New Misery, released back in March, and Light Upon The Lake, released today under the moniker Whitney by former Smith Western members Max Kakacek (guitar) and Julien Ehrlich (drums).

It’s clear from the start of Light Upon The Lake that Smith Westerns’ splinter groups are dealing with the blog buzz hangover in different ways. Released from the expectations of the Smith Westerns, Whitney’s debut album rings with a purpose of freedom: it opens with the track “No Woman,” which strips back the old band’s haze, leading with the warmth of keys and horns, the sun rising on Ehrlich’s forlorn yelp. He’s singing about an existential crisis, sure, but he’s doing so while taking us on a road trip through the Western U.S. The song has an easy vibe that’s found front-to-back on the album (even on the lovely tribute to Ehrlich’s passed grandfather, “Follow”), a kind of sad-but-beautiful sound perfected by the Laurel Canyon set and newly revitalized by the cast of kids moving from Alphabet City to the Hudson Valley. Taken as a whole, the album feels like a Ehrlich and Kakacek’s temporary respite from all things urban — they talk in interviews about wanting to retire to nature, where they can see beautiful things that “are not buildings.”

Omori, meanwhile, dug in to his city roots, maybe feeling obligated to the Smith Westerns’ legacy, and made an album about falling from grace and dealing with addiction. That Omori’s very good New Misery is tonally worlds apart from LUTL should be obvious from the titles alone, but the sonic difference, when listened back-to-back, is jarring and immediate. He opens the thing with a supersonic synth that builds into the wide-open glam of “No Big Deal.” If the album hadn’t come out months earlier, it would read as a direct middle finger to his former bandmates. (Omori actually finished off a recent live set in London by saying, maybe jokingly, “Fuck Whitney.”) He takes moves from the Smith Westerns’ playbook, albeit replacing Kakacek’s guitars with a mob of reverb and percussive oddities. When cut loose and allowed to explore all of his ’80 fantasies, he created an album that was impressive in its world-building not, so much for that world’s fullness but in the way it managed to feel so big and yet remain so insular.

It’s expected that the leader of a band would turn inward when that band falls apart, especially if the falling apart is not so much his idea. By all accounts, the Smith Westerns were kaput a year after the release of 2013’s Soft Will, when Kakacek, who was Omori’s roommate, decided to call it quits. The reasons are vague, and might just boil down to creative differences, but it’s certainly worth noting that the video for Omori’s first single, “Cinnamon,” featured a passerby setting fire to Smith Westerns posters.

Though indie rock darlings tend to hide behind the music, the very young Omori is proof that personalities still matter. His is, appropriately in 2016, deployed primarily via social media, and even in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll egotists, his behavior is unprecedented: he complained about not receiving a Pitchfork review of his album, negative or otherwise, and then, weeks later, tweeted about how upset he was at the negative review of the album. He also repeatedly trashes on ’70s guitar rock revivalists — which, if you boiled them down, would be a perfect way to describe Whitney.

Kakacek and Ehrlich have been handling things the opposite way, using words like “lucky” in interviews (there have been a lot of interviews) and releasing a string of singles that, yeah, sound plucked from vintage home movies. They’ve also been on tour well in advance of the release of this album, and refuse to name names in interviews, mentioning only “the previous band.” It’d be easy to say this was just the guys trying to distance themselves from their past, but Ehrlich was also a member of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and he speaks highly of that band’s work ethic while covertly slamming the “personalities” of Smith Westerns.

Band turmoil typically isn’t interesting fodder, but it’s fascinating to see how the contrasting attitudes of the artists influenced the sound of their post-break-up projects, as well as how they’re received. A key point is that these artists have been presented through different narratives, even though they’re all former members of the same band. Omori is seen as the band leader who has to pick up the pieces of his broken vehicle. Whitney, on the other hand, gets to begin again; their narrative focuses mostly on Kakacek and Ehrlich’s bonding through simultaneous heartbreaks, and the ease they discovered as co-writers. It’s clear that the slash-and-burn technique of Whitney lends itself to open arms, subconsciously or not, though, as Omori points out, that could also have to do with Light Upon The Lake‘s trendy yacht rock revival.

We’ve seen in interviews and on his Twitter feed that Omori longs for the (relatively small) spotlight he had while in Smith Westerns, but his eagerness seems to have turned off critics, who largely ignored his album at the time of its release. In the end, New Misery expands on the sound he’d curated in his band and is the best bet for fans looking for another does of puffed up glam rock. Meanwhile, Kakacek and Ehrlich have managed to capitalize on their former achievements while at the same time distancing themselves from them. It’s an admirable move, but the cynic has to ask: If it weren’t for the Smith Westerns connection, would the band have such a pile of press prior to the release of their first album? Probably not. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Light Upon The Lake is a solid album, maybe summer’s best chance for a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack.