Johnny Whitney’s voice is a peculiar instrument. It sounds as if a prototypical metal growl has been airlifted from the mix, individually pitch-shifted forward five notches, and then casually slipped back in, now resembling a Visigoth on helium.
In the context of his respected former band, the Blood Brothers, the ear-piercing warble added needed ambiguity to post-hardcore thrashing. But blood vows not meaning what they used to, the Brothers dissolved. Whitney, former bandmate Cody Votolato, and a third defunct Seattle band exile, Pretty Girls’ Make Graves’ Jay Clark, found new creative life. They’ve got a thing, and it’s called Jaguar Love. They’ve got a... Matador record deal.
On their Clark-produced debut, Take Me to the Sea, Whitney’s pipes are a little more problematic. The bandmembers have a tight, seamless chemistry, but the streamlined compositions leave too many empty spaces for his singing to fill. The grinding slow fuse of lead track ‘Highways of Gold’ and the stomping pop of the loose-limbed ‘Bats over the Pacific Ocean’ both wear out their respective welcomes for want of a varied delivery. A would-be torch song like ‘Georgia’ demands an emotional nuance that Whitney can’t muster, and it never takes off until he gives up and la-la-las his way to a rollicking finale.
As the record becomes alternately heavier and weirder, the screeching seems to find its natural habitat. The yearning guitar lines of ‘Vagabond Ballroom’ evoke the turn-of-the-century heavy-prog holy grail, At the Drive-In. ‘Bonetrees and a Broken Heart’ shocks with a gentle doo-wop sway. For maybe the first time on the record, the high-register is channeled to truly surprising effect, threatening to become a soulful Prince falsetto. Aided immeasurably by Clark’s bounding Britpop backbeat, the title of album-closer ‘My Organ Sounds Like...’ could be completed by “...a completely deranged Pulp song.”
Take Me to the Sea presents a band that’s clearly not short on musical ideas or ability. But they’re going to have to stop pushing Whitney’s square-peg vocals into their impressively diverse array of styles if they want a wider audience to follow them anywhere else.