Voices of Authority

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Johnny Whitney has a voice only a mother could love, though she is more likely to fear what has pushed her son to such extremes. Between 1997 and 2006, as one of two lead singers in the chaotic Seattle hard-core outfit the Blood Brothers, Mr. Whitney screamed and shrieked like a terrorized teenager forever trapped in a horror movie. It was an ideal sound for the Blood Brothers’ corrosive worldview and discordant mayhem: Mr. Whitney seemed like a survivor witnessing the end times on the band’s 2003 album “… Burn, Piano Island, Burn,” and the music conveyed an appropriately disastrous feeling.

Mr. Whitney’s vocal instrument remains distressed in his new band, Jaguar Love, but this trio isn’t exploring the same sort of calamity. In fact, the group’s debut album, “Take Me to the Sea” (Matador), which is released today, finds Mr. Whitney and his bandmates funneling the Blood Brothers’ anxious energy into music that veers toward dance-floor pop.

In Jaguar Love, which is based in Portland, Ore., Mr. Whitney (vocals and keyboards) is joined by his former Blood Brothers bandmate Cody Votolato on guitar and bass, as well as former Pretty Girls Make Graves multi-instrumentalist Jay Clark on drums, bass, and keyboards. Despite the tight and limited instrumentation, the trio cranks out a rumbling wall of music. Songs are typically built from clashing percussion and guitars, and they move at a brisk clip. But Jaguar Love carves out melodies rather than mere noise from such cacophonies, creating a taut backdrop for Mr. Whitney’s voice, which serves as the main melodic element throughout the album.

The recipe works more often than not. Drums and bass supply the catchy hook in the bubbly “Bats Over the Pacific Ocean,” while a dance-punk bass line lends a throbbing energy to “Antoine and Birdskull.” On both songs, Mr. Whitney’s yelps add critical layers to the swirling momentum. Even on the album’s biggest shocker, the straight-ahead power ballad “Georgia,” Mr. Whitney’s high-pitched delivery feels right at home.

When the wheels come off the band’s delicate balance, though, a wreck ensues. Mr. Whitney’s falsetto cries and occasional screaming shouts on the album’s closer, “My Organ Sounds Like …,” gild an already ornate lily of a song. The trio whips up a radio-friendly jolt of new-wave pop here, with Mr. Whitney singing in a more decipherable mid-range and at the pace of a casual conversation. Then the band starts piling excess on top of what is more than enough: more vocals, a piano bridge, and an inflated running time. The same can be said for “Bonetrees and a Broken Heart,” which aims to re-create the ballad magic of “Georgia.” But Mr. Whitney’s attempt to sound tender yet again constitutes one too many trips to the well on this 10-song, 43-minute album. The band is much better off when Mr. Whitney is propelled forward, as he is on the instantly arresting “Humans Evolve Into Skyscrapers.” His voice is not a delicate instrument, and he is much better suited to Jaguar Love’s more anxious tempos.

* * *

Inara George doesn’t have that problem. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter is the proud owner of a lissome, gorgeous voice that gives her electro-pop duo the Bird and the Bee an almost classic, 1960s pop feeling. “An Invitation” (Everloving), her sophomore solo release, out today, veers into more timeless-pop territory.

A collaboration with the legendary producer, arranger, and composer Van Dyke Parks — who used to work with Ms. George’s father, Little Feat leader Lowell George, and, most famously, collaborated with Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys’ ill-fated 1966 opus “Smile” — “An Invitation” wraps Ms. George’s plush vocals in a blanket of luxurious string arrangements and the sort of lavish musical environs that once buffered such mid-century pop voices as June Christy and Keely Smith.

An august mood runs through the entirety of “An Invitation.” Unlike his work on Joanna Newsom’s 2005 album “Ys,” which leaned on sprightly arrangements to add layers of symphonic textures to an already psychedelic folk sensibility, here Mr. Parks favors stately, unruffled orchestrations that spotlight Ms. George’s lithe vocals. Swooping strings dart behind her on the coy “Accidental”; a cello, harp, and some woodwinds gently sway through “Rough Design.” In fact, all 13 tracks are besotted with these opulent, baroque settings. At times, the album recalls Mr. Parks’s 1968 “Song Cycle,” which sprawled across a variety of American musical traditions. Here, the arranger’s palette is more concentrated, but the sophistication and ambition remain.

Surprisingly, though, “An Invitation” never feels nostalgic — and for that, Ms. George deserves all the credit. Though her voice evokes classic pop singers, her delivery (not to mention her subject matter) isn’t as coy. Even as she delivers literal romanticism that reinforces the music’s mood (as on “Tell Me That You Love Me”), she often subverts a song’s tone with daft wordplay or elliptical feelings, as she does on “Right as Wrong.”

Even better are the deliberately darker songs, whose music and vocals sound heavenly until Ms. George’s lyrics arrive in sharp focus. The heartbreaking “Bomb” is framed by two obtuse ruminations of destruction — “Drop the bomb on everyone, oh, the feeling’s gone” and “Give up the match and watch the city glow” — between which she confesses, “Don’t know where you’ve gone for good / I’m breaking up our house for firewood.”

On the album’s standout song, “Idaho,” Ms. George packs an emotional, psychologically resonant punch into a smoky, murky tune about a barmaid and a man who “went away to Idaho, leaving behind something grim.” In places the lyrics are little more than quotidian — “What do you want? How can I help you?” — but her delivery makes them feel at once fragile and resilient, like a spider’s web. Behind her, a string section gets off the ground, as if to surge into a rousing swell. But instead it rushes to the back of the mix, followed by a mournful piano line that scurries away from the melody. These fleeting moments furnish “Idaho” with a tense hesitance, as if the song is trying to build up its nerve. It is a lovely, despondent tune that marries the mysterious mood of an Edward Hopper painting with the calm menace of a contemporary thriller, using Ms. George’s voice as the seductive siren to draw listeners into an alluring underworld. Old-fashioned pop rarely, if ever, ventured into such carnal, chthonic territory.

The New York Sun

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