Reviewed: JEFF the Brotherhood
(Warner Bros., Released July 2012)
Are bell-bottoms still cool? Or are skinny jeans in? What if you’re going to a proto-punk concert attended by twenty-two-year-olds? Half the people there will be togging bell-bottoms to fit in with The Stooges and MC5 grit. The other half will be in skinny jeans, honoring some New York Dolls-like glam. Agh! Being hip is such hard work these days. It’s so complicated that your heart has to go out to guitarist/vocalist Jake Orrall and drummer Jamin Orrall, the twenty-something-year-old Nashville brothers who formed JEFF the Brotherhood while in high school a decade ago and whose attempts at achieving we-don’t-give-a-shit “cool” are, well, withdrawn to the point of maddening insularity.
Based on the duo’s fifth recording, the major label debut Hypnotic Nights, the young Orralls are as lost in the retro-fied morass as the rest of us—except that, well, they’ve just put out a major-label album. Co-produced with the band by no less a leading light in hipsterdom than The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Hypnotic Nights was recorded at his Easy Eye Sound Studio in Music City and has been receiving a ton of mainstream press.
The verdict? Meh, appropriately enough. Though Hypnotic Nights sounds like a million bucks—based merely on the layering alone, you’d think there were ten guys in the band and that Jake, the guitarist, didn’t play a three-string—most of the songs are indistinguishably loud, fuzzy, and headlong. All of them overflow with cheeky, dumb lyrics: “I want a dog, and I want a gun, oh-ooh-oh / We’ll play all day until I’m outrun, oh-ooh-oh,” Jake sings in his disaffected but sweet tenor voice on the stoner-riffic track “Country Life.” Even more impressive, the ostensible single—the undeniably rocking and sunshine-infused “Six Pack”—elevates third-period sophomore English scribbles to Proustian height. Back and forth Jake and his guitar call and respond: “It’s pretty hot out,” dar DAR-dar DAR-dar dar, “It’s only fifty miles,” dar DAR-dar DAR-dar dar, “I want to cool out,” dar DAR-dar DAR-dar dar, “And get wasted.”
In essence, JEFF comes off as a fine but underwhelming distillation of the rock zeitgeist, shaped by the carefully calibrated industry machinations that are made to look accidental or populist. No one’s accusing JEFF or Warner Bros. of anything other than mediocrity, but being connected is just one reason so many ho-hum-to-dreadful songs and albums reach the mainstream when so many excellent-to-equally-ho-hum songs and albums languish in obscurity. JEFF, stylistically, is the musical spawn of the tri-headed demon that is Blue Cheer, Nebula, and Fu Manchu, whose walls of fuzzed-out guitars sometimes scale cacophony, and colorful e-rockers (MGMT, Neon Trees, and Neon Indian). There is no doubt that JEFF is totally legit—the brothers have played more than four hundred shows over the past two years alone—from basements to Bonnaroo and the Bowery Ballroom. But you wouldn’t think it completely bonkers if someone claimed JEFF was a top-secret industry project created by The Man, based on in-depth listener surveys and high-level marketing research. JEFF: the bell-bottomed bite of The MC5, the skinny-jeaned flash of MGMT. What’s not to love?
The main problem with Hypnotic Nights seems to be a matter of approach. Maybe everyone in the studio, Auerbach included, had on his production-wizardry/MGMT hat instead of his monster-rock/Nebula hat when writing riffs and vice-versa when writing coloratura. “Mystic Portal II,” a shambolic trip of just some slowly strummed barre chords drowning in reverb, wanders pretty aimlessly, and the propulsive “Hypnotic Mind” and “Staring at the Wall” are so muddy and crunchy and thick and utterly monochromatic they could be Ramones songs. (The Ramones, with some scant exceptions, are horrible.)
The Orralls are at their best when they’re experimenting. “Wood Ox” powers forward like any other up-tempo song on the album but is saved by the elegantly catchy vocal refrain of “Aye-ee-ii-ee-ii,” the answer to singer Jake’s calls. “Region of Fire” is a slow-burning, hollow-sounding ballad with a Middle Eastern flair, toms rumbling like distant thunder, the plain guitar jangling lazily, and, above all, Jake’s voice riding a smoothly undulating melody. One of the best songs is also, oddly enough, one of the simplest. “Hypnotic Winter” consists of three parts and a coda: 1) a staccato beat, all eighth notes, driving straight ahead, 2) a staccato vocal call during the verses, and 3) a honey brown legato ooh-ooh’ing response. The coda is a furious, sloppy-ass guitar solo across a swirling and spacey sonic backdrop.
Hypnotic Nights was laid down in a week. In the industry, we call that, “haulin’ ass.” However, 2011’s We Are the Champions and 2009’s Heavy Days—both released on the band’s label, Infinity Cat Recordings—were each recorded in three days. Rest assured, nary a Warner Bros. bean-counter was to be found hanging around Easy Eye like a greasy loan shark, dispensing unsolicited “advice” in a cheap-cigar-scented whisper while leaning over Auerbach’s shoulder in the control room. But like most major-label albums, Hypnotic Nights, miraculously, contains at least three certifiable “singles.” There’s the aforementioned “Six Pack,” whose chorus consists of an ooh-ooh’ing synth line that ping-pongs back and forth between a couple of notes as giddily as a New Waver doing The Molly Ringwald. “Country Life” is a solid head-banger, the band channeling Peter Frampton fronting Led Zeppelin, and “Leave Me Out,” while a blatant Weezer rip-off, contains what sounds like the album’s most complicated riff and a cushiony vocal melody.
You can catch JEFF the Brotherhood on a stateside tour through November. Southern stops include Austin (Monday, Oct. 22), Dallas (Tuesday, Oct. 23), and Little Rock (Wednesday, Oct. 24). You might also catch the guys’ music on TV or in your local movie theater—one good thing about relatively toothless indie rock is that it goes well with inherently toothless (and seemingly ubiquitous) mainstream hipster pandering (looking at you, Wes Anderson/Apple/Verizon/Saturn/Nissan).