Throughout their career, the Blood Brothers always defied classification. They were too dense to be punk, too extravagant to be hardcore and even though their music repelled almost everyone upon first listen, there were earnest elements of pop thrown in as well.
They weren’t for everyone, but they made some of greatest and most unique albums of the last decade and created a sound no one else could match.
Soon after splitting up, the five members formed two new groups that represented the extremes of the Blood Brothers so well it was as if they had a prenuptial agreement. Singer Johnny Whitney and guitarist Cody Votolato recruited Pretty Girls Make Graves drummer J. Clark for Jaguar Love, which carried over the extravagant pop elements underlying the Blood Brothers’ later music; singer Jordan Blilie, drummer Mark Gajadhar, and bassist Morgan Henderson brought back former Blood Brother Devin Welch for Past Lives, which seemed to aim for straight-up hardcore.
Although fan expectations would inevitably carry over to both bands, it seemed that Jaguar Love and Past Lives were both trying to remove themselves from different elements of the Blood Brothers that these five guys seemingly didn’t want to keep up.
Both bands started off in 2008 Jaguar Love with the audacious album ‘Take Me To the Sea,” Past Lives with the intense but minor EP ‘Strange Symmetry” and, wouldn’t you know it, they both released new albums within two weeks of each other this year. I doubt that there’s any real competition between Jaguar Love and Past Lives, but stacking the two albums against each other prove that both bands are going for something dramatically different than they originally attempted.
In 2008, Jaguar Love definitely seemed to have a lot going for them. ‘Take Me to the Sea” threw pop-punk, electronica, cabaret and soul together on one disc without sounding forced or directionless. The band didn’t exactly seem built to last, but another disc of such eclecticism would have been nice.
Instead, Clark opted out of the band, leaving Whitney and Votolato to reform themselves as a dance project? Yeah, you can see where this is going.
‘Hologram Jams” reduces Jaguar Love from an ambitious band to two guys messing around with a bunch of synths, drum machines and loopy studio effects. Yes, these tricks workedfor MGMT and Animal Collective, but these guys are no MGMT or Animal Collective.
They instead sound like trend-followers considering the music Whitney and Votolato used to be involved in, ‘Hologram Jams” feels like a calculated compromise.
Which is not to say that it necessarily doesn’t work. Whitney has made a nice career for himself creating confounding and eccentric music. Whether scaring people off with his bloodcurdling shriek in the Blood Brothers or going it alone for the brilliantly demented side project Neon Blonde, he prides himself on polarizing and intimidating listeners.
On ‘Hologram Jams,” he’s desperately grasping for songwriting talents he doesn’t have: conventional ones. But like the Blood Brothers or Neon Blonde, this album is a spazzy, hard-to-digest assault that isn’t as bad as it seems on the first few listens. In fact, ‘Hologram Jams” is front-loaded with some truly great moments. The anthemic power ‘I Started a Fire,” ‘Cherry Soda” and ‘Don’t Die Alone” works you over if you give them a chance in these instances, it seems this duo is actually capable of pulling off some great pop songs, or at least living up to their own drastic makeover.
The problem with ‘Hologram Jams” is that Jaguar Love’s unabashed avidity for party-starting accessibility simply doesn’t feel right there’s little irony or, indeed, joy to it. The duo takes the new sound too seriously, making their supposedly fun-loving spirit seem uninviting and just plain baffling.
The album has plenty of infectious moments, but even at its best, it feels like transparent, dumbed-down fun that always evaporates by the album’s last few songs.
After getting off to such a bold start, Jaguar Love now sounds lost, chasing a hyperactive gimmick that few others will get down to, or into.
Past Lives, on the other hand, delivers an astounding surprise with their full-length release, ‘Tapestry of Webs.” On the ‘Strange Symmetry” EP, it was clear that these four had no problem unleashing all kinds of intensity, but it wasn’t clear if they were going to bother going outside of that box. ‘Tapestry,” then, is an astonishing development. Rather than specializing in rage and noise, this is an album of tension, suspense and occasional, hellacious release. This kind of music takes great precision to pull off, and Past Lives pulls it off, giving themselves a very strong and assured start.
Opener ‘Paralyzer” is a good precursor to what the album has in store. It starts with a reserved guitar line and Jordan Blilie’s signature mumbling, and continues to gradually raise its stakes for almost three minutes. Just as suddenly as it takes off, with Blilie screaming the refrain over an insistent drum assault, the song cuts off. It’s not much of a climax, but every time I listen to the song, my heart is racing at the end.
A lot of ‘Tapestry” is like that it constantly teases and meanders, sometimes exploding but is still captivating all the way through.
It seems that after ‘Strange Symmetry,” the band has developed a strong sense of restraint and calculation. These two songs are dramatic but rarely explosive, meaning that, when they actually do explode, you really feel the shock and intensity.
Next to Whitney’s emphatic blaring, Blilie’s low, limited range stood little chance of standing out in the Blood Brothers. But in Past Lives, he has emerged as one hell of a frontman.
He’s a real singer now hitting notes, carrying tunes, all that business and now that he’s rationing his furious screaming abilities, he’s even better at channeling pure rage.
‘K Hole,” ‘Hex Takes Hold” and ‘Falling Spikes” are the most furious songs here, with Blilie completely letting himself go as the band turns to chaos around him. These moments are few and far between, of course, but the songs in between have a subtle, slow-burning turbulence of their own. The only shame is that the last three songs are some of the least developed, ending this whirlwind album was an odd anti-climax.
Otherwise, ‘Tapestry of Webs” is a startling album proof that Past Lives has already matured into a smart, commanding force.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.