The Whitsundays are one of those bands that sound like they’d be more at home in a hotel lounge than, say, Death by Audio. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but there can be. Indeed, the first two or three listens of the Whitsundays self-titled debut are not kind to this Edmonton-based lo-fi nostalgia act, whose sound is so refined and so frustratingly unaggressive that it brings to mind the frivolity of trashy 60s pop rather than the darkness of artsy 60s psychedelia.
Both influences are at play, especially in songs like “It Must Be Me,” whose opening sounds like it was ripped off of the Beach Boys, or “The Ways of Sweet Talking Boys,” whose grating synth line and whispery vocals makes the Whitsundays sound like a less manic, less fun version of Apples in Stereo. This is not a good thing, and The Whitsundays constantly threaten to retro themselves into the deep vacuum of standard-issue musical nostalgia. And they do it in the most narcoleptic way possible, in lackadaisical organ riffs and boyish, whispered vocals.
But the Whitsundays also have uncanny pop instincts, and the album’s virtues really come through after a third of fourth listen. “Already Gone” is danceable as well as slightly disorienting, and one of the few times when they really nail the psychedelic pop thing. “Antisocial” is the best song of the year that’s under two minutes, and its deference to early 80s punk sheds light on the album’s more subtle musical references–for careful listeners, there’s a touch of 80s new wave lurking between the four-part harmonies. The album’s disquieting lyrics are also a shrewd contrast to its taut, clean-shaven production, and gives The Whitsundays some much-needed gravity: “Loralee” is a twisted little story about lost love, while “Bring It On Home” is a similarly bizarre treatment of romantic obsession.
The Whitsunday’s ability to synthesize their influences into something that’s occasionally fun to listen to puts them in good company–think of them as a less confrontational Black Lips, or a darker, less excruciating Vampire Weekend. Their debut is a stronger than average indie-pop recording that isn’t eye-gougingly twee, and its share of highlights is well worth the sometimes-tiresome hotel lounge feel–it’s OK to like this stuff, even if it’s not going to rock basement parties.