Having released twelve albums in the sixteen years since they formed in 2002, most of which have stuck fairly close to their southern-flavoured garage-rock core, most people probably aren’t expecting JEFF The Brotherhood to pull out anything new at this stage.
Yet here we are with album number thirteen, advertised as twelve Magick Songs, and things are indeed sounding a little different. It’s a psychedelic and sonically colourful album, which provides a soothing and laid-back listening experience without ever delivering any real “wow” highlights.
The sibling duo of Jake and Jamin Orrall are joined for the first time by Jack Lawrence (of Dead Weather and The Raconteurs) and Kunal Prakash (of Viva L’American Death Ray Music.) The addition of new members has clearly allowed the group to expand their live playing in the studio more, as the songs on the album are apparently edited down from improvised jams. This is apparent in their more linear structures that deviate from the radio-friendly verse-chorus traditionalism of much of The Brotherhood’s extensive discography so far.
Songs flow through evolving parts without returning to them. While this compositional approach can sometimes trigger alarm bells in preparation for a rambling, directionless album, here it suits the band’s sound and playing style well.
The simple laid-back Focus On The Magick opens the album with a steady driving rhythm and breathy floating vocals from guest Jenna Moynihan, of fellow Nashville rockers Daddy Issues. The central drums and bass are decorated with layers of changing guitar textures, setting the template for how many of the album’s songs are built. It’s an understated and effective opening selection.
This is followed by the similarly laid-back Camel Swallowed Whole. We get the first vocals from the usual singer, yet you barely notice them after their introduction, blending slacker-like into the song. We’re getting an idea of what the album is like - above all, it’s noticeably lazy; not in its creation or the effort put into the songs but in its chilled-out vibe.
Gone, for the most part, are the heavy classic-rock riffs and metal influences, replaced by quietly noodling clean guitars barely drawing attention to themselves. The vocals, drenched in reverb and echo, are for the most part treated as background, resigning from their dominant role in the group’s previous songwriting.
In fact, four tracks (a full third of the album) are instrumentals. These feature some of The Brotherhood’s most interesting and rich sonic palettes, showing a new ear for texture and instrumental combinations.
The best is the first in sequence, Singing Garden, a gorgeous combination of chiming guitars, spring reverb, some kind of stringed folk instrument, and a grooving rhythm, that would be the perfect soundtrack to a dreamy nighttime garden animation.
These successes are due to a new exploration of instrumentation that the group delve into here. Recorded in the relaxation of a home studio in Jake Orrall’s living room, they spent longer on the album than any they have done before it. This really shows in the meticulously crafted layers of sound, ranging from a plethora of guitar effects to ghostly classic synthesizers to flute to the trumpet of Locator to hand-percussion ensembles to unidentified folk instruments.
The production is at times close-up and intimate, clean guitars plucking right in your ear, and at other times washed in sleepy reverb. It is a truly psychedelic album.
These sonic qualities are by far the album’s main strong point, and seemingly the main focus of the band’s creative energy in its’ making. What isn’t as developed are the songs themselves. After listening to it three times through I still struggled to define more than one or two tracks individually from each other. If these were all guitar-drum-bass numbers without the different instrumental soundscapes to distinguish them, the album would be nothing short of a painful drag.
When the songwriting and vocals do finally take the forefront, it is in an unfortunate setting. Towards the end of the album, as though to apologise for the lack of sludgy distorted riffs up to this point, the band throw in two cheesy stoner metal cuts in a row, The Mother and Magick Man. Not only do they not fit with the rest of the album whatsoever, but they are painfully generic pieces in themselves, with borderline laughable vocals and lyrics.
If this is an apology to older fans for the lack of this kind of thing in the rest of the album, then the following instrumental Heavy Journey is an apology for their apology, and a far better one at that. The slow hypnotic rhythm, beautifully scratchy droning violins and twanging guitar is instantly reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and is one of the album’s best moments on purely sonic terms.
The best way to describe Magick Songs would be that it is more exciting than it is fulfilling. The expansion of JEFF The Brotherhood’s sound (and lineup) reveal a collective ear for texture, colour, and interesting engaging arrangements that haven’t been on full display in their previous work. All that’s lacking are the songs, which they have proved they have in the past.
Despite that, it is still an enjoyable collection of vivid laid-back psychedelia, that most importantly feels like it is setting the stage for a true success to come.
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Released: 24 Aug 2018