Ocean Fiction, the new album by the Charleston quintet Whitehall, doesn't sound like a debut, and in a certain sense, it doesn't sound like it was released in 2018. Ocean Fiction is nine tracks of deceptively smooth, polished rock that sounds like it could've been made in the era of Steely Dan or Roxy Music.
Produced (like seemingly everything else these days) by Wolfgang Zimmerman at Rialto Row, the album's aesthetic could best be described as "immaculate." Every beat is tight and precise; Patrick Magwood's sax slides comfortably alongside Paddy McKiernan and Avery Greeson's guitars, and the whole affair pumps away like a calibrated machine. It might have been a case of glossy overkill if the band hadn't created such airy, infectious pop melodies to go along with all the craftsmanship.
So this is modern-day indie-rock, huh? "'Indie-rock" is such a funny term," says McKiernan, who's also the band's lead vocalist. "It's sort of become a catch-all that covers a pretty broad spectrum of artists and sounds. In terms of our own sound we're really just trying to be honest. We're making art that we feel like communicates an emotional or conceptual idea to listeners, and the sound that came out was pretty organic. We set out to be as genuine as possible and the product of that was indie-rock."
The word "conceptual" is important, because Ocean Fiction is a complete package, from the music to the album art. The cover, featuring some stylish pairs of pants and TV screens up against a pale blue backdrop, is a tidy slice of cut-and-paste art deco that could've come from Mad Men, and there's a certain lounge-y quality to the entire visual approach.
"The aesthetic we've put together has actually been pretty collaborative," Greeson says. "We try to create our music as honestly as possible, artistically speaking, and then it starts to get really fun when you involve other creatives. For our album cover, for example, we worked with a killer artist, Becca Cass. We showed her the songs and she really seemed to understand what we were going for emotionally. It was really cool to see Ocean Fiction represented visually like that. It's just fun to work with artists of other media and see Whitehall represented in other ways."
That sense of collaboration extends to the band's work with Zimmerman, who's riding a killer winning streak of productions right now.
"We sent him our demos and it was really exciting to get his input as far as crafting a coherent sound," McKiernan says. "That contributed to that 'total package' idea."
The recording process with Zimmerman for Ocean Fiction was miles away from the band's DIY approach for their 2015 EP Before We Walked.
"We literally recorded it in our friend's bedroom," says bassist Brennan Clark. "That wasn't really a creative decision either; it was just a necessity of our nonexistent budget. For the new record, we had time to save and pay for time in a studio that we really loved and were excited to work in."
Whitehall also spent a lot more time preparing before they went in to record this time around, meaning that the songs were already tightly arranged by the time they got to work.
"We've learned a lot about preparation," Clark says. "Some of the songs on the EP were only weeks old when we went to record them, and they could have probably been fleshed out a little bit better before being immortalized forever, mistakes and all. We worked really hard on the front end for Ocean Fiction. We spent a couple of months in pre-production on our own, making sure all of the parts worked exactly the way we wanted them to, and so that we could make the most of our time in the studio."
What's perhaps most fascinating about Ocean Fiction is that, as mature and complete as the band sounds, they're not sure this is quite where Whitehall is supposed to be; they're a young band that's still developing. Or, as drummer Davis Rowe puts it, "We're still trying on shoes."
"We don't quite know who we are or what we want to be yet," Rowe continues. "We love the way Ocean Fiction sounds, and it's a pretty coherent snapshot of who we are right now, but we're constantly changing and trying new things. We've mentioned it a couple of times now, but it definitely just comes back to being genuine. Whitehall will only be 'fully formed' as long as we're writing from an honest place. That might look different further down the road, and maybe we'll finally settle on something, but for the time being we're still working it out. And who isn't? We're glad it looks like we've got it all together, though."