The Hot at Nights — a Raleigh trio tripping the space between rock, pop and jazz — are one of the area's most far-flung musical groups. This reality is hammered home by ¡Try This!, their bustling sophomore effort, which pulls a sly 180 with its first two cuts.
The opening title track is dogged and joyful with a cartoonish vocal sample that recalls Battles' kinetic technique setting the stage for a suave sax fill that soon distorts, mutating into a blitz of feral bop. It's a genre-smashing hullabaloo.
The subsequent "Phaeseus" does something antithetical, taking a driving riff from guitarist Chris Boerner and deconstructing it until it becomes a wash of elegiac horns and subtle plucks. The intensity builds back near the end, but in a way that now seems haunted and fragile. Indeed, The Hot at Nights' ability to shift between various moods and styles is often quite daunting and something you can see for yourself when the band performs at the Evening Muse on Nov. 1.
"You can call it a jazz record, but it's not," Boerner explains. "It's really only jazz in the sense that it's instrumental, and there's a saxophone. It's a lot more of a pop-music influence. When we're making music as a band, it's much less about the individual instrumentalists. We're trying to create something as a whole that isn't necessarily about each of us supporting a soloist and somebody improvising over a song form, which is much more of a jazz approach."
Boerner and his bandmates, saxophonist Matt Douglas and drummer Nick Baglio, are fixtures in the Triangle's rock and jazz scenes, and they survive by gigging with an increasingly diverse set of local projects: Boerner and Douglas once created quirky pop with The Proclivities, and they both play shows with trance-inducing folk outfit Hiss Golden Messenger. They've also produced solo jazz records. And Boerner and Baglio often back country songstress Jeanne Jolly. This broad experience funnels back into The Hot at Nights, pushing them to continually carve out new sounds and techniques.
"[We've] diversified the kinds of music that we're interested in and actively making a living working with," Douglas asserts. "The Hot at Nights made a very different kind of a record this time than we would have had we been just working the jazz scene over the last five years or whatever."
But of all their connections, none has had the impact as that of collaborating with Nicolay and The Foreign Exchange. Led by rapper-turned-crooner Phonte (formerly of Little Brother) and Nicolay, a Dutch-born producer living in Wilmington, The Foreign Exchange specializes in super-smooth R&B with a sleek veneer and a cozy feel. Boerner began collaborating with them shortly after the release of their 2004 entrée, Connected. Since then, The Foreign Exchange has dropped three more studio LPs along with an impressive live album, picking up a Grammy for "Daykeeper," a highlight from 2010's Authenticity. Released earlier this month, the new Love in Flying Colors debuted atop Billboard's Heatseekers album chart, which tracks records from "new or developing acts."
All of The Hot at Nights have played with The Foreign Exchange, and the trio served as Nicolay's backing band for his Shibuya Session EP. That record's synth-lush arrangements inspired the addition of keys and saxophone loops on ¡Try This!, elements that make the new album more immersive than Nice Talk, The Hot at Nights' 2011 debut. The guys also got to tour behind the EP with Nicolay, opening the shows with sets of their own, exposing themselves to a national audience that would have otherwise been unreachable.
"They challenge their fans with the music they continue to put out," Boerner says of The Foreign Exchange. "We've gotten a lot of fans to cross over and become fans of our music, simply because they have such an open-minded fanbase."
The Foreign Exchange also runs a small record label where it releases its own albums as well as efforts from collaborators and friends, among them Jeanne Jolly. But The Hot at Nights handled ¡Try This! on their own. They wanted to go ahead and release the album in October, which would have drained resources from Love in Flying Colors, and they know that their expansive sound would upset the label's mostly song-driven status quo. They plan to reconnect with Nicolay next year to record a new album, but they're also fine on their own.
"This is definitely an outlet and a way of playing and an attitude toward music that isn't necessarily fulfilled by the other projects that we're involved with," Douglas says. "This sort of unrestrained approach is something that we all have a need to fulfill, and this will always be that outlet."