Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Akron/Family - S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT (2011) REVIEW

The very idiosyncratic folk-influenced experimental rock band Akron/Family released their fifth album at the beginning of this year, their second on Dead Oceans Records, not counting one complete Michael Gira's (owner of Akron/Family's previous label Young Gods Records) Angels of Light's album as a back up band, countless other collaborations, including vocals to two albums by Canadian post-rock band Do Make Say Think. When you know that Akron/Family was formed in 2002, the least we could say is that they have been busy. Did I mentioned their tours all over the planet Earth? Oh, and their first self-titled album was out in 2005. Such prolificacy is hard to beat, or only by pure improv and experimental artists. If Akron/Family uses improvisation, field recordings and some white noise, it's not to fill in some spaces, they are part of each of their very composed and arranged songs, they are used as instruments in between countless others which are colouring their compositions. "Though each member of the band—Dana Janssen, Seth Olinsky, and Miles Seaton—can be relegated to loosely defined roles (drummer, vocalist/guitarist, and bassist, respectively), all members play several instruments and sing." (1) When listening to their albums, although there are some guests here and there, the full, rich and multi-layered musical architecture of each songs is that of a ten-piece combo, but even in their noisiest and most freak-out moments, the overall sound retains its clarity, and above all the melodies shine through.

From the very beginning, Akron/Family has been so much stamped as part of that freak-folk scene, a very disparate term where you can find Devendra Banhart or Jackie-O Motherfucker, and because of their knack for improvisation, guitars bursting out of context, tribal percussion, electronic wizzardry and so on, few seem to notice that Akron/Family are melodically and harmonically extremely refined and imaginative singer/songwriters, from their guitar licks to their (close) harmonic vocals, compared to which Animal Collective could sound completely savage and chaotic, even on their most, if seldom, tender moments, through their most colourful and quite psychedelic arrangement. The freeform forward thinking aspects of Akron/Family make them push through the envelop and compose songs which don't have to follow some traditional, or conformist, construction with verses here, refrains there, bridge over there, not that they especially avoid it either, they just don't limit themselves to it. Furthermore, anything can happen any time, a burst of noise can appear in the middle of the calmest and sweetest song, or the opposite, or stomping drums out of the blues, and even frightening shrieks, if seldom, at the least expected moment. One formidable example can be found on their previous and rather tame, despite the title, album "Set 'Em Wild, Set Em Free" in 2009 with the short "MBF", their most trashiest and violent track, just after the album's comparatively placid middle third. With Akron/Family, you're never completely safe and this makes their albums such a thrill to listen to, even after several listens. A thrill, but mostly a real if adventurous pleasure, more like a bumpy and varied journey through a rich, colourful and surprisingly harmonious landscape. In many cases, such freedom of musical expression, such mix of styles and genres, such contrast in mood, would result in a messy, self-indulgent and patchy result, this never occurred in Akron-Family's albums, except maybe their second "Meek Warrior" in 2006, where some tracks sound like jams, tho inspired, very spontaneously recorded at a moment in time, surely when the mighty free drummer Hamid Drake paid the band a little visit (I know few rock bands who would dare to even play with such monster of a drummer, they'll be swallowed raw).

During these two years which separate "Set 'Em Wild, Set Em Free" to their last album, the three members of Akron/Family spent some time composing and arranging their future songs in a cabin near a live volcano (hence the album cover and, somewhere, the enigmatic title) in Akan National Park in Hokkaido, Japan, then recorded its largest part at Michigan Central Station, the abandoned train station in Detroit (2). They were joined on some tracks by Ryan "Vanderhoof [ex-Akron/Family after 2007] on slide guitar, vocalist Ali Beletic, trumpeter Ed Sortman, and Japanese vanguard percussion legend Tatsuya Nakatani" (2). The result is their best album to date, at least their best since their very first one. By declaring this, there's no purpose to minimize the quality of "Love is Simple" and "Set 'Em Wild, Set Em Free" mainly, both albums have more than qualities and they are absolutely recommendable, only here and there they are paying debts to the sixties and seventies with sometimes too much emphasis, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band for "Love is Simple" and Neil Young, Franz Zappa and even Parliament on "Set 'Em Wild". Besides the refreshing woodsy sound of their very first, and most melancholic, album was disappearing after the second album to become more and more digitalized, hi-defined, almost self-conscious, while the musicians' impressive instrumental technique were getting so prominent it seems to me it saddled their inherent spontaneity to the level of sounding a little fake here and there. That impression has disappeared with this new and very cosmic journey through Akron/Family kaleidoscopic world. The production is fuzzier, the drums are more tribal than ever, the vocals (close) harmony are wilder and less immediately pretty, everything seems to be recorded in one, two or three takes to keep the energy as intact as possible. The very first track "Silly Bears" is almost a declaration of intention, and it's paradoxically their most danceable track to date, if in a very shamanistic, and slightly reminiscent of Animal Collective, mode (3). The track is huge, it's noisy from the repetitive and (a)rousing saturated drums to the loud anthemic electric guitars, the lyrics are as silly as the bears mentioned in the song and the vocals are exuberant to the level of insanity. But while that six-minutes carnivalesque decorated with nursery rhyme fantasy introduces the album, nothing will even slightly resembles it through the whole album. Actually no songs sound like any other, and if that variety could be considered one Akron/Family's trademark, it has never been truer than on this album. Another trademark is that paradoxical ability to unified all the songs into one flow, this album is another and even more successful example. The next song "Island" immediately sounds less strident and beautifully textured and arranged with soft birds as introduction then tender toms to hypnotic guitars, whispering synths and murmured vocals; we are almost into Grizzly Bear's territories, but it remains totally Akron/Family. The most vintage sound appearing on this album comes with the next track and aptly titled "A AAA O A WAY", which is indeed some trippy vocal deconstruction of the word "away", and it's heavy scratchy organ supporting the vocals, some kind of two minutes introduction to the next "So It Goes" - both tracks are assembled into one in the video (4). The guitar on "So It Goes" is arching back to the proto-hard rock sound which appears on "Love Is Simple".

All in all, the sixties influences are less prominent and maybe better used than ever in Akron/Family's discography, the Beach Boys, of course, the vocals are more nuanced and refined than on the other albums, let's say less 'invading', but also Van Dyke Parks, the man in the shadow par excellence (he has created arrangement for Randy Newman's very first album in 1968, and closer to us Rufus Wainwright's and Joanna Newsom's - his own "Song Cycle", also 1968, is pretty fine). As a whole, this album is definitely a contemporary piece of recording which runs the gamut from noisy guitar rock, tender acoustic with bits of electronic songs, gigantic tribal rhythms and very melodic vocals and orchestration, just like the other Akron/Family's albums, only better, if that was possible, and above all with renewed and contagious enthousiasm. Akron/Family is not a band we can really apprehend in terms of evolution, each album is like a laboratory for new ideas and formulas, trial and error. That band is formed by three alchemists, their results are very close to magic.

7 out of 10

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akron/Family
(2) http://www.allmusic.com/album/akronfamily-ii-the-cosmic-birth-and-journey-of-shinju-tnt-r2103945/review
(4) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAqm-i8kGUc

  • Akron/Family (2005) - 7
  • Meek Warrior (2006) - 5
  • Love Is Simple (2007) - 6.5
  • Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free (2009) - 6

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