Release Date: July 17, 2012
Label: Warner Bros.
JEFF the Brotherhood, two Southern siblings united in a mission to rawk, would make excellent action figures. Guitarist/vocalist Jake Orrall, the Skynyrd-’stached elder, looks like he’s auditioning for Stillwater in an Almost Famous reboot; drummer Jamin’s mold easily could be bootlegged from Luke Skywalker’s Kenner head and Animal’s Muppet body. The Nashville bros attack their instruments with the frantic, clawing energy of ferrets trapped in trousers — this could be simulated with AA batteries and/or Mexican jumping beans. Sold separately would be their father, Robert Ellis Orrall, an accomplished Music Row songwriter whose 300-plus credits range from country-pop princess Taylor Swift to tabloid vulgarity Lindsay Lohan.
Hypnotic Nights is JEFF’s seventh full-length and first for Warner Brothers, but the duo aren’t hailing this major-label affiliation as any sort of breakthrough. In fact, the Brotherhood are big on independence. Jamin, for one, co-founded brat-punk firecrackers Be Your Own Pet as a teenager and quit after industry schnooks took an aggressive interest in the rapidly ascending outfit. Years before that, he and Jake formed a punk trio called the Sex; they also invented an imprint, Infinity Cat, to released the band’s first live recording.
Eventually, the Sex evolved into JEFF, two DIY-minded Black Sabbath fetishists who made records like boys build tree houses, hammering them together in three days or less. Meanwhile, Infinity Cat became the sort of label that would vouch for a band named Diarrhea Planet, as well as toss grilled-cheese sandwiches into the crowd during its 10th-anniversary show. Corporate men took interest in both properties, JEFF weren’t delicate with the process, self-releasing last year’s underappreciated We Are the Champions in the midst of talks with Warner Bros. because they’d grown impatient with the lagging process. It worked out anyway.
For Hypnotic Nights, they enlisted Black Keys beardo Dan Auerbach, the part-time producer who most recently coaxed a “departure” from piano shaman Dr. John on the voodoo-jazz savant’s unusually personal Locked Down. Here, Auerbach’s role shifts from art therapist to telepathic translator — even Jake and Jamin acknowledge their process is insular — and you can hear his accents immediately, starting with the phlegmy sax that escorts in the dazed, confused opening riff to “Country Life.” Gold star to the album’s first utterance — “I want a place / Where I can smoke meats” — for setting the hungry, restless, summery tone. You can practically smell the charcoal. (Memorable first lines are a JEFF tradition: “I’ve been thinking about your mom,” is Champions‘ opening confession. “You can tell me if it’s really wrong.”)
The Brotherhood’s summer-of-2012 foils are Japandroids, another exuberant rock pair who pay tribute to late nights and boozy, reckless adventures, and inaugurated this year’s BBQ campaign with the widely lauded, expertly crafted Celebration Rock. But the Vancouver duo come off as meticulous sound sculptors whose hangovers are existential, whereas JEFF are resilient noisemakers who use hangovers as an excuse to eat greasy food. Celebration Rock‘s oft-quoted drinking anthem, “Younger Us,” is poetic nostalgia: “Remember that night you were already in bed / Said fuck it, and got up to drink with me instead?” But Hypnotic Nights‘ drinking anthem “Six Pack” would rather rhapsodize the high-fiving bliss yet to come: “I wanna cool out / And get wasted / Ooh ooh ooh ooh.”
Really, though, JEFF share more of a sensibility with fuzz-rocker King Tuff, a whiny pothead introvert who encourages getting blazed alone to “stare at all the shit in your bedroom.” But Tuff’s captivation is JEFF’s distraction, a cipher to avoid conflict, as the literal-minded punk spray of Hypnotic Nights‘ “Staring at the Wall” makes clear. An even better complement is the Bay Area’s Ty Segall, a similarly prolific retro-rock talent who split an Infinity Cat seven-inch with the Brotherhood in 2010. But where Segall takes cues from Ray Davies, the Orralls lean hard on Rivers Cuomo.
It wasn’t always this way: On 2009’s stoner-rock defibrillation Heavy Days, Jake’s vocals were a distant narration of doom-blues indulgence, a kind of meteorological commentary on the fog-metal vortex spun by his fingers. But here, his voice is the primary emotional agent, the humanity that softens all the Camaro-tape-deck wankery. “Dark Energy,” for example, is spliff-metal Weezer, thick sludgy puddles parted by ambiguously vulnerable questioning: “If you’re drifting towards the eye / Where do you go-oh?” But even when the lyrics fantasize about specific events (like simply enjoying the weather), Jake’s delivery betrays early-Rivers’ wry acknowledgment of how selfish and amusing and gentle and dumb these dude-wishes are — frequently driven home when they’re immediately followed by ooooooh‘s
That’s the case with “Hypnotic Winter,” an off-roading go-kart jam that employs Joey Ramone’s clipped phrasing, Bob Seger’s road-hog piano, and more vowels than a can of SpaghettiOs. “Region of Fire” is a psych-rock ballad scripted for campfire makeouts — think Black Lips covering the Moody Blues without irony, but with touchy-feely sax. The only real flaw here is “Changes,” an anemic Black Sabbath cover whose existence is excused by the fact that Warners is footing the licensing bill. Then again, Ozzy’s has had his own action figure for years, so maybe JEFF were just jealous.