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Originally published Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Jaguar Love singer's voice can get its claws into you

Former Seattle band Jaguar Love releases its first album, "Take Me to the Sea," today on Matador Records. Band members Johnny Whitney and Cody Votolato are formerly of the Blood Brothers; drummer Jay Clark played in Pretty Girls Make Graves.

Special to The Seattle Times

On the Internet

Jaguar Love: Hear music from "Take Me to the Sea" at the band's MySpace page — www.myspace.com/jaguarloveband

Five things that are divisive in Seattle:

1. Seafair

2. Light rail

3. Courtney Love

4. The 20-cent plastic bag

5. Johnny Whitney's singing voice

Whitney is one-third of Jaguar Love, recent Seattle-to-Portland émigrés whose debut, "Take Me to the Sea," comes out today on Matador Records. He and guitarist Cody Votolato are formerly of the Blood Brothers; drummer Jay Clark played in Pretty Girls Make Graves.

Whitney's voice bounds out of "Take Me to the Sea" with a perplexing jolt reminiscent of the Looney Tunes frog high-kicking to "Hello! Ma Baby." It's a difficult sound to describe, this cartoon kettle whistle of a voice. It's a targeted squeal like a castrato carnival barker, taut and flouncy like stretched rubber — schoolboyish, perhaps, if we're talking about a schoolboy demonically possessed. There's a certain torch-singer quality to it, too, self-consciously campy like Elton John or Freddie Mercury gone punk. It sounds a bit mad — mad for notes, for melodies, for volume. It sounds altogether inappropriate for casual listening enjoyment.

"My vocals have always been polarizing, even in the Blood Brothers," Whitney said during a recent tour stop in L.A. "Either they got it or they didn't."

This polarizing sound is the wind that sets Jaguar Love's ship to sail. Whitney's lyrics are on an equally unpredictable tack.

"I'm really inspired by surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp — taking what they did in terms of imagery and integrating that into writing," he said. "In writing lyrics, I find the more serious you take yourself, the harder it is to finish what you're doing. I take what I do seriously but I've never been the kind of person that's had success in drawing from my own experience. Whenever I have, it's infused with bizarre imagery."

Song titles from "Take Me to the Sea" read like titles of surrealist paintings: "Bats Over the Pacific Ocean," "Vagabond Ballroom," "Antoine and Birdskull," "Humans Evolve Into Skyscrapers." The record is Dalí's "The Persistence of Memory" set to overdriven guitars and a hustling backbeat.

All this art-school weirdness would add up to overbearing self-indulgence if not for proper compositional leverage. Balance is the best part of Jaguar Love: Irresistible, hook-heavy songwriting makes enduring the weirdness worthwhile, makes it make sense. Maybe not for casual listening enjoyment, but certainly for a thrilling musical experience. These hard-pop cabaret rock songs are so full of sly jabs, feints and swoops that some are actually funny.

"Johnny and I had some good conversations prior to the band about wanting it to be more melodic, have things be more understandable in his vocals than they were in the past," Votolato said. "We wanted it to feel positive."

That's the way to listen to Jaguar Love, knowing that behind the sonic theatrics is a grounded band of veteran musicians exploring a sound that — take it or leave it — is nothing if not unique.

"We're doing the music that makes us happy," Votolato said. "It's the first priority for us. You hope that people like what you're doing — it's the lifeline of what you do, people coming to your shows so you can continue doing it. But from the get-go we just wanted to write the songs we want to write. We don't take it personally if someone that likes Blood Brothers doesn't like Jaguar Love. You can't please everyone."

Jonathan Zwickel: zwickelicious@gmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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