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JEFF the Brotherhood - Magick Songs Music Album Reviews

Three years into their return from the majors, the Orrall brothers have finally blossomed into a proper rock band—on an album that deconstructs the idea of what a proper rock band should sound like.

For most indie-rock bands, signing to a major label hardly presents the moral quandary it did, say, 25 years ago. In fact, these days, you barely even notice when it happens. (“I’m so bummed the War on Drugs signed to Atlantic,” said no one ever.) However, the destabilizing effects of getting dropped by a major label are as acute as they ever were. Back in the 1990s, even the most hardened and savvy indie-rock insurrectionists—be it the Jesus Lizard or Archers of Loaf—were never really the same after they got demoted from the big leagues. And in the more recent case of JEFF the Brotherhood, even an act that openly celebrated its dismissal from a major label can’t help but emerge from the experience a changed band.

For brothers-in-rock Jake and Jamin Orrall, signing to Warner Bros. in 2012 seemed like the natural next-level move after a prolific decade-long run that saw them harness their distortion-caked racket into radio-ready power pop. Alas, their warm ‘n’ fuzzy Warner debut, Hypnotic Nights, barely cracked the Billboard Top 200, proving that a Dan Auerbach production credit isn’t enough to turn your band into the next Black Keys. With 2015’s Wasted on the Dream, JEFF the Brotherhood took another crack at selling themselves as the world’s most sanguine stoner-rock band, but Warner opted to drop the Bros mere weeks before the album was set to be released. (The band’s own Infinity Cat imprint stepped in to rush-release it.) Since then, JEFF the Brotherhood have seemingly been torn between going back to garage-greased brass tacks (2016’s Zone) or stepping more forcefully on the motorik gas pedal (2015’s Global Chakra Rhythms). But with Magick Songs, we feel the true aftershocks of their ill-fated Warner experience. Having made a concerted effort to court the mainstream only to have their advances rebuffed, the Orralls have come to the conclusion that there’s really no reason for JEFF the Brotherhood to sound anything like JEFF the Brotherhood anymore.

It’s a rare thing for a rock band to genuinely surprise you on its 13th album, so credit the group—a two-piece outfit that once limited itself to three-string guitars—for completely blowing up any pre-existing notions you may have had of their band or their music. On Magick Songs, the Brotherhood function more like an extended family, thanks to the official recruitment of Raconteurs/Dead Weather bassist Jack Lawrence and multi-instrumentalist Kunal Prakash, along with guest vocals from Jenna Moynihan (of Nashville indie-pop trio Daddy Issues) and crucial contributions from Bully bassist Reece Lazarus—on clarinet. Ironically, JEFF the Brotherhood have finally blossomed into a proper rock band on an album that thoroughly deconstructs the idea of what a proper rock band should sound like.

At the height of their commercial aspirations, JEFF the Brotherhood effectively retooled krautrock for Camaros, rendering classic-rock chug with Autobahn precision. But on Magick Songs, krautrock is merely the jumping-off point: On the album’s spell-casting introduction, “Focus on the Magick,” the band rides a gentle Jaki Liebezeit beat through an oceanic fog, with Moynihan’s angelic vocals serving as the siren’s call luring them into the murkier depths. From there, JEFF the Brotherhood only become further untethered from their roots. Magick Songs is reportedly a dystopian sci-fi concept album inspired by everything from Isaac Asimov novels to the apocalyptic visions Jamin experienced in his dreams, and while the narrative thread can be difficult to parse through the omnipresent haze, the album effectively functions as a soundtrack to JEFF the Brotherhood’s own atomization. As they drift through Japanese new-age instrumentals (“Singing Garden”) and gamelan oscillations (“Locator”)—with Lazarus’ dissonant clarinet serving as their fog-horn guide—the band manages to suppress all traces of its old identity while reinforcing Magick Songs’ ominous, claustrophobic vibe. To that end, the album’s greatest act of debasement—and thus, greatest triumph—is “Relish,” which sounds like Jamie xx’s “Gosh” stripped of its clattering rhythm track and left to stew in its weightless, brown-note synth drones.

Many of these tracks are actually edits of extended jams, but Magick Songs is more than just a series of experiments in globe-trotting psychedelia. With the Pavementine rumble of “Camel Swallowed Whole” and the misty, cymbal-tapped post-rock surges of “Parachute,” JEFF the Brotherhood successfully indulge their growing fetish for off-kilter sonics while producing effortlessly tuneful, emotionally resonant songs. So it’s a bit disappointing that, in the album’s home stretch, Magick Songs’ amorphous, unpredictable aesthetic hardens into the lumbering doom-metal of “The Mother” and “Magick Man,” as if the band were overcompensating for the deficit of brawny rock elsewhere on the record. But even as they momentarily revert back to delivering slabs of sludge, it’s clear that JEFF the Brotherhood are not the band they once were. The closing “Farewell to the Sun” may lurch forth on a bong-bubbling groove, but the song’s queasy, string-swept breakdown and creepy subliminal voices soundly reassert Magick Songs’ rejuvenating mission: For JEFF the Brotherhood, a bitchin’ riff is no longer the end goal, but a bulldozer that allows them to bust open new worlds to explore.

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