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With White Life, a brother-sister duo goes pop

MusicPopular Music (genre)Whitney HoustonWye Oak (music group)Deborah Gibson

Jon Ehrens is five years younger than his sister Emily.

It might not seem too important now that they're both adults, but when you're a kid, that's a big gap. Which is why, even though they came from a musical family, the two never really had much success as a band.

But last year, when Ehrens began recording '80s-influenced synth-pop songs as White Life, he realized he needed a female singer. He tried a few people around Baltimore, but none stuck. His parents had suggested Ehrens and Emily collaborate, but he worried about the complications of mixing family and music.

"I wasn't sure how it'd go because we didn't hang out that much until recently," said Ehrens, a Bethesda native who plays many styles of music under dozens of monikers, most notably the Art Department and Repelican. "I was worried that if it didn't work out, it'd be awkward."

He ultimately took the chance on Emily because her childhood influenced White Life's sound.

"The music that she listened to as a kid — Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, I remember her Go-Gos picture-disc 7-inches — was all in my subconscious," Ehrens, now 27, said. "She's [now] a wedding singer doing Whitney Houston songs, so it made a lot of sense."

White Life's debut self-titled album, released in May on Baltimore's Ehse Records, proves the brother-sister duo — which plays Sonar on Friday with Spank Rock — had nothing to worry about. Their chemistry is all over the eight-song disc, whether Emily sings background (as she does on album opener "Time is Wasting") or takes the lead ("Second Look").

Listeners familiar with Ehrens' other bands — many being rough-around-the-edges and influenced by the Replacements, surf-rock and other non-Top 40 groups — will be surprised by the brightness, clarity and, perhaps most surprisingly, pop ambitions of White Life's songs.

"I wanted to make something that I didn't have to explain to my parents," Ehrens said. "I like to think of pop music as populist music, not popular music. It isn't turning its noise up at non-music listeners."

It's tempting to classify White Life's songs as kitsch or campy — recalling a time when MTV played Whitney Houston and Dire Straits — but it's the group's commitment to pop's formula of sticky melodies and soaring hooks that makes the record rise above skepticism.

"I've had big and catchy hooks in the past, but they were presented in a much less palatable way," he said. "I always [wanted to] apply them to something more universal."

Crafting a memorable chorus could be in Ehrens' DNA. His father, a veteran jingle writer, penned local radio spots for Jerry's Subs and Pizza ("Ooh, ohh, Jerry's!") and Jiffy Lube ("We'll be good to your car so your car will be good to you").

Despite White Life being Ehrens' most high-profile project — earning acclaim from national taste-making blogs such as the Fader and Brooklyn Vegan — he's restless when he's not working on new projects .

Ehrens recently played bass for Flock of Dimes, the new project for Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner. Ehrens and Wasner have plans to record together as a different band, but it's "up in the air" as to when we'll hear anything.

"I know I frustrate a lot of people because I change names or change projects, but in my mind, every painting has its own name," he said.

Yet Ehrens sounds most excited when talking about a planned solo album. He's fickle, at once embracing his musically schizophrenic writing style and bemoaning having to hide behind his stable of one-off bands.

Whether that means White Life will be just one more act in Ehrens' ever-expanding catalog or if there will be a second album, it's the only one he can claim to have kept in the family. It's also safe to say it's his parents' favorite of Ehrens' bands.

"They were so used to my stuff being aggressive and grating, they thought [White Life] was a joke," Ehrens said. "But they're huge fans. They come as much as they can to shows."

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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If you go

White Life performs Friday at Sonar, 407 E. Saratoga St. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance; $20 day of show. 18+. Call 410-783-7888 or go to sonarbaltimore.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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MusicPopular Music (genre)Whitney HoustonWye Oak (music group)Deborah Gibson
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