Review: Jaguar Love (Jaguar Love EP) and Past Lives (Strange Symmetry EP)

August 25, 2008

The Blood Brothers always seemed to me to be the male equivalent of Sleater-Kinney.  Both bands had dueling, contrapuntal vocal parts; both knew how to turn a sung note into a scream; both turned from a more straight-ahead punk sound toward something less definable and unique as they grew as a band.

Unlike Sleater-Kinney, whose members remain unfortunately silent, when the Blood Brothers broke up late last year, they almost immediately split into two new bands, Jaguar Love (Johnny Whitney, Cody Votolato of the Blood Brothers and J Clark of Pretty Girls Make Graves) and Past Lives (Jordan Blilie, Mark Gajadhar, Morgan Henderson, and Devin Welch).

Jaguar Love and Past Lives aren’t really easy bands to compare, since the shift in sound and personality for each band draws on influences that are worlds apart.  Jaguar Love takes a more straightforward indie-pop approach, while Past Lives draws heavily on the sound of Gang of Four through the use of spiky, contrapuntal guitar parts and repetitive, driving phrases.  But neither yet sounds as fully formed as the Blood Brothers circa Burn, Piano Island, Burn (2003), and singers Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney both sound like they have to get used to being the only man up front.

With both Jaguar Love and Past Lives releasing EPs this summer, the question will be who will find success after their breakup.  Initially, the short answer would seem to be Jaguar Love, who signed to indie biggie Matador almost immediately after forming.  But the focus should be on the long term—who can find the most growth out of this experience, and which band will be able to stand on its own in the end.

Jaguar Love Jaguar Love EP

Johnny Whitney sounds like a girl.  Actually, two girls: Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, of the aforementioned Sleater-Kinney. “Highways of Gold,” the opening song on the EP, and the lead single from the newly released Take Me to the Sea, opens with a verse that sounds remarkably similar to the chorus of Sleater-Kinney’s “One More Hour” in melodic contour and rhythm.  Oh, and words: both repeat “know(-oh-oh-oh-oh).”

Is sounding like a girl necessarily a bad thing?  Not really, at least not for me—I don’t give a rat’s patootie if you’re singing like your “correct” gender.  But I am bothered by how much this song draws on Sleater-Kinney’s handbag of tricks: Whitney layers his voice so that one track is overlapping with another, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Brownstein, at one point or another, enunciate the same “Awah!” and Tucker do the “Ah-ah-ah.”  The linear guitar parts—another Sleater-Kinney favorite—and the loud, strong drumming with rapid-fire fills only add to the effect.

The other two songs on the EP, “My Organ Sounds Like…” and “Videotape Seascape” move away from the Sleater-Kinney mold and bouncy, repetitive pop toward a more layered sound and give Whitney—and his voice, take it or leave it, is most certainly the focus of this entire EP—a chance to show a more expressive range.  “My Organ Sounds Like…” allows Whitney to establish that yes, he can sing a melody, and he’s not so bad at it.  Every once in a while, too, he dips into his non-falsetto range, giving a hint of future growth (Note to Johnny Whitney:  If you can sing in a falsetto, you can embrace your lower range; falsetto is best used sparingly).

“Videotape Seascape,” the final song on the EP, best indicates the musical direction the band could take, if Johnny Whitney begins to sing in something other than his upper-upper-upper-range falsetto.  It’s not as though he’s any more understandable than on the other songs, but that he’s using his voice more like an instrument—one with a wider range of emotion, texture, and depth than earlier indicated—that fits in nicely with the repetitive guitar line beneath it.

Past Lives Strange Symmetry EP

Past Lives got the “favorite” singer for many fans, Jordan Blilie, but here the spotlight often belongs to the onetime Blood Brothers and Shoplifting guitarist, Devin Welch.  Welch’s guitar parts, whether layered or interlocking, spiky or connected, always add interest to a song; he’s basically could be the Johnny Marr of the Pacific Northwest, if Johnny Marr hadn’t gone and joined Modest Mouse.

The opening song, “Beyond Gone,” builds from the a simple, slow-tempo marimba underneath an arpeggiated guitar line.  The drums click against the rim of the snare, delicately indicating the tempo.  And then, Blilie actually sings!   The initial sparse and quiet arrangement builds through a wall of Welch’s feedback, and then, just as dramatically, goes quiet again, the song ending with just the marimba and an extended drum roll, leading straight into…

“Strange Symmetry,” the title track, where the band’s Gang of Four influences are on display in an unrelenting art-punk charge against the melodic pop world, until the last thirty seconds or so, which, quite frankly, I want to hear as an engagement with that pop world that the rest of the song eschews.

“Skull Lender” starts out much the same as “Strange Symmetry,” except that it’s maybe even more in the Gang of Four mold; ditto for “Reverse the Curse.”  Also, unlike the first two songs, where it was first absent and then subtle and catchy, the technique of adding both reverb and double-tracking to Jordan Blilie’s voice begins to be a little grating, like when you first realized that the Strokes’ lead singer Julian Casablancas sounded like he was singing through a megaphone for every single song on Is This It?

Thankfully, the final song, “Chrome Life,” ends the EP on a musical high point.  Beginning with some terrific, clicky drumming and textural, sustained guitar, it is driving without being repetitive, just melodic enough and still edgy enough in turn to be a wholly satisfying song.  It waxes and wanes as a song, leaving just enough in your memory to want to listen to it again.

So, the verdict:  I think it depends on a lot of “ifs.”  If Johnny Whitney can broaden his range, both in tessitura and expression, then Jaguar Love has a bright future.  (And I didn’t even mention in this review how much I really like J Clark’s drumming–is there any instrument that guy can’t play?)  If Past Lives can stop listening to the Gang of Four’s Entertainment on repeat, then so do they.

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