Midway through Whips’ swaggering, scorching debut LP, Turn It On, the band lets off the throttle and switches gears for an out-of-character surprise: a piano ballad. “I won’t forever glow / I won’t forever glow” sings Ashley Smith on the tender-yet-raw “Forever Glow.” It’s a tranquil moment on an otherwise turbulent album, but a good example of the depth possessed by the hard-rocking Milwaukee quartet. Turn It On may be a thrillingly lean record—all muscular guitars, booming drums, pounding bass, and howling vocals—but there’s a robust streak of well-rounded musicianship coursing through its veins. It’s Whips’ finest hour to date, and one of the best Milwaukee albums of the year.
Credit all that to a crack lineup that includes past and present members of Space Raft, Call Me Lightning, Hot Coffin, Red Knife Lottery, and The Academy Is… All throughout Turn It On, guitarist Christian Hansen, bassist Tyler Chicorel, and drummer Andy Mrotek lay down a rock-solid base for Smith’s alternately defiant and vulnerable tales of money (“Big”), sex (“Xoxxx”), and, well, Evel Knievel (“Right On”). Opener “Switchblade” features the singer at her most Karen O—dig the vocal upticks on the second round of “Give me more!”’s—and some of Hansen’s most dramatic guitar work. (See also: “Loverly.”) Elsewhere, “Wise Words” gets by on some scuffed-up riffs, “Fire Drill” clears the room with some seriously slinky come-ons, and “It’s Over” plays out like a series of sexually charged dares (“If you take your shirt off / I’ll take my shirt off”). It all ends with the cocky strut of “Xoxxx,” long a staple of the band’s live show. “My sex is in the subtext,” sings Smith, in what has to be one of the best choruses of the year.
But it’s not all winking innuendos and airtight rock. Similar to the unexpected turn of “Forever Glow,” penultimate track “Loverly” trades brawn for beauty and scores big with a mournful, shimmering sound that highlights Smith’s terrific vocals and the band’s deceptive versatility. All told, Turn It On is a rock and roll album through and through, and represents everything the genre should be: raw and sexy, sure, but never one-dimensional. Before the long-awaited follow-up to 2013’s Year One EP finally sees the light of day this weekend, listen to it now, only at Milwaukee Record.
Whips will celebrate the release of Turn It On Saturday, December 20 at the Cactus Club. Limited colored vinyl copies will be available for $15. Midwest Death Rattle and comedian Ryan Holman will open the show.