JEFF the Brotherhood – Hypnotic Nights

Taking the major-label leap after nearly a decade cultivating an underground following can be problematic. We aren’t in the 924 Gilman days where caving into commercialism means utter banishment anymore, of course. But JEFF the Brotherhood’s long been supported by a sector of rock ‘n’ roll that can often be elitist in its resistance to the mainstream. Until recently, the Nashville brothers were exemplary members of the independent garage-rock scene. For years they’ve fronted the independent label Infinity Cat, through which they’ve released five of their own LPs, in addition to albums and singles for a slew of other garage-centric bands. The pair has never failed to slather Sonic Youth-thick distortion over riffs that bounce from dizzying to pounding to trippy. But while Hypnotic Nights, their sixth LP and Warner Bros. debut, is far from flawless, it’s certainly not grounds for exile.

In terms of pleasing their fan base this time around, the odds are against Jake and Jamin Orrall. Dan Auerbach of the arena-filling Black Keys produced Hypnotic Nights, JTB’s sixth LP and Warner Bros. debut. Credits like Jessica Lea Mayfield, Dr. John and the Ettes don’t offer much hope for Auerbach meshing well with JEFF’s trademark mix of melody and gravely guitars, although the earlier, less polished Black Keys recordings suggest otherwise. The Orralls’ role in Jack White’s first public attempt at a joke – backing ICP on a cover of a Mozart song last year – felt like too desperate a stunt to be funny. While that went down months before the July release of Hypnotic Nights, it raised some questions as to what the hell the Orralls were doing with themselves. When talk of Auerbach’s involvement arose, the unwanted aftertaste of Faygo was still lingering in many a mouth. But, save for a few peeks over the precipice of mainstream rock, JTB’s feet appear to still be planted firmly in the revved-up garage that’s become their signature.

A clean kickoff beat opens the album on “Country Life,” which employs the same sandpapered quality of guitar expected from any JTB tune. There’s some squeals and screeches here and there that sound more likely meticulously placed than naturally occurring, but they’re quickly forgotten after the subtle scrape of dissonance from the high-octave vocals in the chorus. The time-layered, supercharged strums that roll in right after the first verse of “Hypnotic Mind” sound like engines on a speedway in slow motion, while “Wood Ox” ping-pongs lightly until reaching the rush of delirium. The wild, rough choruses of Hypnotic Night’s predecessors – particularly Heavy Days and We Are the Champions – remain intact there and on a few other tunes.

Where Jake and Jamin Orrall falter is in breaking away from the blueprint they created for themselves (and have practically mastered). Like “Endless Fire” on We Are the Champions, “Region of Fire” is another slice of introspection written without regard for the Orralls’ vocal capabilities. They can get up there, sure, but stripping away the gritty guitars reveals how shaky they sounded all along. Oh yeah, there’s light keys laced throughout the album. They’re nice and wonky sounding, usually paired perfectly with riffs in a way so complementary they’d go unnoticed – if not for the closing track, “Changes.” The keys take on a church-organ tone and soulful vocals commence, but there’s no salvation for this song. It’s like a gospel rehearsal slammed against a blooper reel from the spaceship landing scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s immensely irritating.

Let’s not point fingers and pick who’s to blame for those failed stretches outside JTB’s scope. At least there are only two of them, and the righteous choruses of the album’s tried-and-true jams make those missteps easy to ignore. It was just a few rocks kicked over the ledge that overlooks big-shot canyon anyway – and the Orralls probably hated the hollow thuds at the end of the drop as much as anyone else.

JEFF the Brotherhood
Hypnotic Nights
[Warner Bros.]