The country-pop sound of Shania Twain serves as Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin’s introduction to the sold out crowd at The Cluny. It’s Twain’s 1997 hit ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much,’ something of an ode to not showing off. “Does anybody like Shania Twain?” Jacklin asks afterwards. “She’s got a really interesting back story. If you’ve got some time, read her Wikipedia page.”
Picking the song as her walk on music is either a big joke on Jacklin’s part or it’s a funny little way of being humble, because there’s something impressive about the way she manages to keep the slightly rowdy crowd (almost) entirely enraptured. She plays songs from her delicate Americana-tinged debut album Don’t Let the Kids Win, each passing track proving that Jacklin possesses maturity beyond her years. ‘Pool Party’ is met with the most enthusiastic cheers of the night, a curious phenomenon considering it’s probably her most world-weary song. Her band leaves her alone on stage for the album’s title track, letting her sing about familial relations like a slightly wry old soul.
Much like Jacklin’s songs, much of Whitney’s work contains a deeply melancholic edge – not that you’d know it from their sunny blend of country, soul and indie, which is something of a departure from the alt-rock frontman and drummer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek were making in Smith Westerns. Even ‘Follow,’ a song that Ehrlich explains is about “my grandpa dying,” is almost impossibly upbeat. Perhaps that’s because the Chicago band’s whole shtick revolves around evoking a sense of nostalgia; songs from their debut album Light Upon the Lake more often than not lean heavily towards the sounds of the late 60’s and 70’s. It’s a formula that’s seen them sell out every show of their current UK tour, and it’s hard not be drawn in by their vintage sound. The jazz-inflected instrumental ‘Red Moon’ pulls a number of different threads together into a surprisingly neat package and at one point they even throw in a cover of Bob Dylan‘s 1969 song ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,’ a musical equivalent of a wink and a nudge.
That’s the major, endearing twist when it comes to Whitney: they know they’re unabashedly retro but they’re also self-aware enough not to take things too seriously. They’re a band who just seem to want to have fun and take the audience along for the ride. Ehrlich himself is a particularly laid-back character who interacts with the audience at every possible occasion, even though at times he looks pretty tired (unsurprising considering they’ve toured extensively this year). He asks about the city, learning that it’s famous for football and beer (not seeming surprised by either revelation) and at one point gets up to shoot a quick video of the performance on his phone. This light-heartedness is also sometimes extended to their songs. ‘No Matter Where We Go’ is built around an oddly cheesy chorus where Ehrlich sings “I wanna drive around/ With you with the windows down,” but its good-natured breeziness turns it into one of the highlights of their set. They even extend out the silent gaps in the languid closer ‘No Woman‘ like playing a game with audience, daring them to start clapping early. It’s all a far cry from the macho “bro-country” that’s dominated the scene for two years, and it’s refreshing.
“Are any of you in love?” Ehrlich asks before launching into ‘Golden Days.’ He’s met with a somewhat lukewarm response, particularly from the back half of the room – apparently the crowd aren’t too keen on revealing if there’s a special someone in their lives. But from the rapturous applause that erupts just before they leave the stage, the answer was probably a resounding “yes” when it comes to their feelings on Whitney.