The last thing a long-time JEFF the Brotherhood fan would expect to hear on a Bogus Bros album is a saxophone solo. Its appearance during 2011 – the year of the saxophone – in the Fleet Foxes, Destroyer, and Bon Iver albums made sense; but JEFF in 2012? The band whose three-string guitar, beat-up drum kit, and wall of amps incite brutal mosh pits worldwide a couple hundred times a year? Group the sax in with production work by Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, and you’ve got the skeleton for Jake and Jamin Orrall’s seventh full-length Hypnotic Nights.
“Region of Fire” devolves into a swirling mass of psychedelic guitar and saxophone, Infinity Cat is no longer the sole label in their lives and Auerbach’s fingerprints are all over the record. Despite the cries of the purists longing for the heavy riffs of 2009’s Heavy Days or even further back in the catalog, Hypnotic Nights demonstrates immense growth and pop sensibilities, with a precarious yet effective balance struck between the two.
In the realm of rock, “Pop” has historically been a pejorative adjective leveled at bands accused of losing their integrity for the sake of mainstream appeal. That isn’t the case on Hypnotic Nights. Instead, the catchy melodies, handclaps, and an irresistible chorus of “oohs” on opening tracks “Country Life” and “Sixpack” fully realize the cheeky references that littered old releases, such as the air horn that kicked off last year’s We Are the Champions. They’re stereotypical odes to hedonistic youth, full of yearning to drink beer by a river, “smoke meats”, and shirk responsibilities with friends. The Orralls sing what they know, so their romanticized tales of smoking pot and canoeing avoid stoner cliche merely by being autobiographical. Musically, Auerbach’s presence here is undeniable, and thankfully unobtrusive. Jake’s vocal performance has improved markedly, toying with varying choral timbres and even falsetto. A whole album in the same vein could have finally justified the early Weezer comparisons that have followed JEFF throughout their career, but they aren’t that predictable.
Hints of pop sheen continue to reappear throughout, such as the “oohs” on “Hypnotic Winter” or the cascading “ahhs” on “Wood Ox”, but the true strength of Hypnotic Nights isn’t the radio-ready summer jams, even if the record has been promoted that way. Starting with “Mystic Portal II” and its wandering psychedelia, the darkness hinted at on Champions‘ “Health and Strength” encompasses all. Lyrics consumed with feelings of emptiness and indecision amidst warbled walls of noise characterize the second half of the album, and it lives up to the Hypnotic name.
The noise, though, isn’t the distortion and heavy guitar usually associated with JEFF. Heady blends of sitar, saxophone, keys, and the constant drums transport the listener to a variety of different sonic paradigms, testing the waters from grunge (“Leave Me Out”) to seventies psychedelic jams (“Region of Fire”). Album standout “Staring at the Wall” is particularly indicative of these changes: starting with classic Brotherhood shredding guitar, but melting into a hopeless repetition of “Nothing’s happenin’ when I’m staring at the wall” and an abrupt tempo change. The sounds vary, but the quality remains constant: the brothers navigate genres flawlessly, with the end result being just the distinctive sound of JEFF.
By the time the synth-heavy cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” rolls around to close things out– a solid cover, at that, with Jake’s vocals eerily channeling Ozzy– its blatant titular message is hardly needed. Through the multi-tracking, introduction of new instruments and tendency to get absorbed in trance-inducing psychedelic grooves, it’s clear that JEFF The Brotherhood has changed, and were not out to recreate the riffs and hooks of their albums past with Hypnotic Nights. What’s impressive is even though the duo ventures into new sonic territory, the knack for catchy melodies and heavy riffs remains, making this new direction both true to their roots and indicative of huge maturation. The live shows will still destroy shoes and faces alike, and the audience has a deeper record to listen to and devour on vinyl. Though it was the title of their last record, it seems more appropriate to definitively say here that JEFF The Brotherhood are, indeed, the champions.
Essential Tracks: “Mystic Portal II”, “Staring at the Wall”