Graded on a Curve:
JEFF the Brotherhood, Hypnotic Nights

Sibling duo JEFF the Brotherhood have been honing their blend of rock, pop, raucousness and psychedelia for quite some time. Staying power and a relentless touring schedule has helped them secure a major label deal, and Hypnotic Nights emphasizes the pair’s penchant for melody over their fitful desire to take it outside, a somewhat disappointing circumstance remedied substantially by their simple gift with a hook. Those who love when the pop meets the rock however, will consider it good medicine.

Not to be deliberately obscure, but I guess my pick for the best two-piece band ever is Seattle’s fabulous The Smashchords, a wild and wooly pair of post-Link Wray u-ground wackos that employed a still startlingly conceived and surprisingly effective two guitar lineup and released a wondrously zesty seven-song self-titled mini-LP on the custom built Rough Trade subsidiary Smash Trade way back in 1981 that along with two self-issued cassettes is absolutely scarce these days; their entire recorded output persistently cries out for a nice reissue package from some benevolent corner of the record industry.

My reasoning for picking The Smashchords is predominantly concerned with the high quality of their sounds, but there is also the undeniable aspect of pure nerve in the duo’s music, an admirable daring that makes the impulse to award them with the mantle of finest two-piece even more attractive. They certainly have some stiff competition, though; Flat Duo Jets, Lightning Bolt, The White Stripes, and The Black Keys all spring to immediate mind.

But all those runners-up employ drums in their overall strategy, a maneuver quite sensible in helping a stripped-down attack to connect as something other than mere novelty; tough and pure rockabilly-inspired mania, mayhem-inducing noise mulch and deep strains of Americana, blues and pop inflated with enough rhythmic gusto to fill a stadium with good natured frenzy.

But what ultimately makes the Jets, the Bolt, the Stripes, and the Keys much more than just worth the effort is that shared touch of obstinate outsider inspiration that The Smashchords also possessed in spades. To put a fine point on it, capable bass players are simply not that hard to find, especially in a large-assed and legendary musical berg like Nashville. That’s where the twosome JEFF the Brotherhood hang their collective hat, and that’s a huge part of the reason why the brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall fall into the considerable category of deuces gone wild.

And JEFF the Brotherhood has been around for a bit, releasing their debut record I Like You ten years back. They really hit their stride in last decade’s second half and took an additional big jump with the pair’s fifth full-length Heavy Days. Last year’s We Are the Champions continued their progress, and the brothers have also rubbed shoulders on a bunch of split singles with the likes of Best Coast, Screaming Females, Ty Segall, and The Greenhorns.

Keeping that kind of company should help locate the Orralls as a combo not the least bit afraid of the hard work required in the creation of top-notch art. Indeed, JEFF the Brotherhood has developed into something of a touring behemoth playing shows big and small in aid of spreading their often joyous sound across hill and dale. And the dedication has paid off, for their new record, the eighth in their discography if you count last year’s limited Live at Third Man (and why wouldn’t you?) is the second to see distribution in a partnership with the bigwigs at Warner Brothers.

And Hypnotic Nights continues a progression of sorts for JEFF the Brotherhood. Unsurprisingly, the duo’s early records were endeavors smaller of scale that presented not only a definite pop sensibility but also fine flare-ups of a primal psyche-rock side. If We Are the Champions found them examining their inclination toward the popish, they also didn’t nix the psych aspect of the personality, and in fact last year’s limited EP Upstairs at United Vol. 3 might be my favorite JEFF the Brotherhood release (though some of their early stuff has been hard to hear).

That 12-inch found them not only covering Hawkwind’s unimpeachably major “Master of the Universe” and a truly bent original split over both sides of the vinyl, but also expanding to a formidable five-piece (including Lambchop’s William Tyler on guitar) for a blistering take of “I’m a Freak” by obscuro-Brit heavy-psychsters The Wicked Lady. For starters, that’s a smoothly discriminating choice. And from beginning to twisted and abrupt ending, it unfurls as an untamed doozy.

It’s probably stating the obvious to remark that nothing on Hypnotic Nights, an 11-song affair released at least partly through Warner Brothers’ dime, attains those levels of inspired nonchalance. This is in no way a fault, though again those earlier records by JtB did indulge the psyche with greater frequency. Instead, their talent for pop hooks is out and strutting peacock proud on this new record and for the most part without ill effect.

To start, there have been comparisons to Weezer, but I think that’s occurred mostly through the sound of Jake Orrall’s vocals. If Rivers Cuomo falls squarely into the tradition of pop grand master, these siblings are firmly of the garage template, though this should by no means imply a lack of vigor or for that matter a lack of true hooks; if there is little of the wunderkind in JEFF the Brotherhood’s pop song-smithing, they do hold a firm and frequent grasp on the deceptive melodic nutriment that’s found in the finest Ramones stuff, for just one example.

Hypnotic Nights was co-produced with the bros by Black Key Dan Auerbach. It’s apparently the first time JEFF the Brotherhood has employed an outside producer and also one of Auerbach’s few co-production credits. And it’s really not a bit surprising that Jake and Jamin would seek the studio guidance of a guy that has proved so adept at navigating the choppy waters of the rock duo.

And a steady combined hand is in evidence on Hypnotic Nights, an album where the pop quality is deliberately presented out front, the better to allow the second half to branch into their eccentric side. “Country Life” starts things off by melding a swell sing-along proposition with some hefty distorto-riffing and then throwing in a handclap break and some keyboard driven fake horn sounds for good measure.

“Sixpack,” which is essentially Hypnotic Nights’ single (and ‘twas on the Hypnotic Knights EP from earlier this year), ups both the distortion and the melodiousness, utilizing harmonies that have certainly encouraged those links to Weezer. It’s simply one of the most highly accomplished songs I’ve yet to hear from JEFF the Brotherhood, and that’s it’s apparently about some sort of alcohol-friendly camping trip makes it even better. And in its last forty seconds it kicks into an half elated, half achy overdrive, so it’s easy to see why this song was given the big push.

That previously detailed Ramones-like songwriting aspect informs “Mystic Portal II,” though it should be mentioned that the Orrall brothers aren’t reaching for any sort of emaciated and sunlight-deprived retro leather-jacket vibe. No, I could just as easily paint JEFF the Bros with a brush dipped in ‘60’s pop classique, giving necessary nods to Spector and the Brill Building. In addition to solid punkish flavor “Mystic Portal II” also includes some appetizing post-Beatles sitar action in its recipe, which only helps to emphasize the general savvy at these guys’ disposal.

Things fall into sort of a holding pattern with “Hypnotic Mind” and “Wood Ox,” both fine tunes that give the initial impression that Hypnotic Nights is going for the full-tilt pop experience. However, “Staring at the Wall” takes a turn toward some pure punk throttle, again very Ramonesy, with a nice though too brief psyche-blitz denouement.

And if “Leave Me Out” presents a dangerous wrinkle of sameiness, then “Region of Fire” rebounds rather nicely, not any less poppy but with a return of the sitar and a totally unexpected sax solo followed by some cool psyche guitar soloing. It might be Hypnotic Nights’ best track. Which is really saying something considering the blend of riffy power pop-isms and Krautrock motorik that is “Hypnotic Winter.”

But the album’s deepest left-field treat is saved for last, specifically a faithful cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” from Vol. 4. It works as both a sincere tribute to a worthy and unusual song and as a wonky and inspired gesture in its own right; bluntly, the cheap Casio-like keyboard sound that dominates the tune was dated twenty-five years ago, and if some joker had played this track for me as a blindfold stumper I very likely would’ve falsely pegged it as a product of a vanity press/loner/basement mastermind circa the ’78-’83 range. It definitely possesses a palpable “real people” aura.

So JEFF the Brotherhood ends Hypnotic Nights with a nice stroke of inspiration. And as much as I enjoy these guy’s melodic chops, on future releases I’d surely like to hear it more evenly distributed with their endearingly odd and unruly side. It’s how they ultimately stand apart from the pack, and this desire to sick out should only deepen as they release records on a larger scale.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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