Saturday, October 03, 2009

Akron/Family - Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free

When we last left our bearded heroes, they were in quite the pickle: coping with the loss of one of their leading members right as they were about to get into touring mode for their recently completed roots prog tour de force Love Is Simple. Did they panic and go into hiding, trying to make sense of what their future could possibly hold? Fuck no! Knowing that singer/guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof's absence would surely burrow a gaping hole into the live potential of their demanding new compositions, they instead called up four other hairy young men to ensure that every night spent onstage would be not just a concert, but a party that no one in attendance (or at least this reviewer) would ever forget.

Yet even through all the carefree smiles and fun, a sense of uncertainty loomed large over the touring ensemble's three core members. They'd managed to save their own asses this time, but where to once the party inevitably winds to a close and all the guests go home? Would they forge ahead, following whatever inspiration happens to materialize from their newfound situation, or would they let such a devastating blow shatter everything they'd built up over the past half decade?

Perhaps if the band wasn't so used to tearing up the rulebook every time it came time to pull together a new album length statement, the prospect of starting over may have been a tad more daunting. As much as many so-called fans might still secretly long for one, a rehash of the 2005 self-titled release would have been impossible due to how much they had already mined from such a fertile aesthetic. Perhaps if the album had been anything less than a masterpiece there would have been some room for refinement, more leftover ideas waiting to be uncovered and polished. But this was not the case then, and nor is it now. And so for the third time in a row (not counting an excellent half of a split LP and a "mini-album," jesus, this band!), they've dropped a jawdropping monstrosity out of nowhere, doing things that we previously had no idea they had in them.

Well... kind of. It depends on who you ask, really. To many listeners, "they're still drowning in a mess of unfinished ideas and grating hippy nonsense!" But let's put this one under the microscope and see if we can make it seem notable within the context of Akron/Family's long strange trip, if not that of modern independent rock music in general.

Determination, persistence, and creativity are essential qualities that a band must have when overcoming an obstacle as seemingly crippling as the loss of a crucial member. When life takes away a few of your lemons, you can still make lemonade... just not as much. Or it might just taste worse if you fuck up by not compensating with the amount of water. The human mind is not a lemon, though. When life takes away one of the guys who contributes ideas to your records, it's not taking away the ideas that you will have in the future and it's certainly not taking away the ideas that the situation created by the now former member's departure allows you to come up with and probably wouldn't have occurred to you if you hadn't thrust into that exact situation. Public Image Ltd. did it when bassist/essential component Jah Wobble left, saying, "Fuck bass, we're just going to experiment with percussion," turning out Flowers of Romance, a unique record in their catalog that is great for entirely different reasons than their earlier work with Wobble as a member. Likewise, when Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English left Wings, the core trio of Denny Laine, Linda McCartney, and the guy whose name everyone always forgets soldiered on to create London Town, their most focused and studio exploiting album length statement since the last time they found themselves pared down to the trio format.

While the title of the trio effort that ended up coming out of that "last time" declared the group to be a "Band On The Run," the things that the members of Wings were on the run from most certainly did not include "their ability to come up with spectacular songs." And I am happy to report that the same can be said of the new three piece edition of Akron/Family and its first officially released studio material. Like PiL and Wings before them, the three piece configuration of A/F finds the group exploring the possibilities of the studio environment in ways the A/F that was more set on "being a band" never got to.

From the homemade "kitchen sink aesthetic" approach that characterized their folky debut recording, to the extended group freakouts found on later releases, there has always been an emphasis on the organic, either through the ensemble dynamic or the more intimate "guy playing an acoustic and whispering" tracks that got them lumped in with many of the "freak folk" boom's heaviest (and most irritating) hitters (yet earned the group tragically less acclaim than any of them.) Of course, there were a number of curious sonic embellishments found throughout that first record, and the analogue recording triumph that is Andrew Weiss's production job on Love Is Simple is essentially a more meticulously tinkered with reimagining of the kind of raw overdubless full band showoffery found on their side of Split LP.

Simply put, they now sound bigger than ever. Bigger than three men should be able to sound. While the group has moved beyond songwriting as a vehicle for showcasing its splendid handle on group interaction, the jams remain. When the nearly eight minute "Gravelly Mountains Of The Moon" decides to just collapse into a chaotic mess of freeform noise before breaking off into a distantly recorded group vocal mantra complete with clapping and wailing saxophone sirens, taking the groove higher and higher, and then right at the peak bringing the listener down for a brief final section that is only vocals and piano... well, you get the sense that if this band's naysayers were ever right to call them "indulgent," hearing them more committed to piling sound upon sound over their multipart epics than ever could possibly justify such criticisms.

That noisy abandon is noisier and more a product of studio experimentation than ever before. In some places, it works remarkably well, like in the heavens parting interlude in "Sun Will Shine (Warmth of The Sunship Version)," which is just such a mind-huggingly lovely wash of ambient noise that you'd think you were listening to Tim Hecker or Fennesz or some crap. In other places, like on the tossed off "MBF," the "throwing shit at a wall" approach can feel a bit tedious. Obviously one can't say no to the A+ Steve Howe riffing in the song's opening, but shortly it turns into the guys seeing how much obnoxious noise they can make with a synthesizer while the drummer bangs out some ploddingly guttural floor tom heavy pattern. Before you know it, they're trying on some punishing noise for size, complete with tortured "David Yow at 1:06 in 'Monkey Trick'" screaming.

Brutal? A little bit, I suppose. As is, it just doesn't sound seamlessly integrated into their sound or refreshing due to placement within some unexpected context. The sense that they're only halfway towards reaching whatever it is they're going for isn't just present in the noisefuck explosions, however. "River," "Creatures," and "Many Ghosts" find the group crafting songs that resemble straightforward indie pop more than anything else in their catalog, and not even in the "Yes trying to play a Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 medley" way that made "I've Got Some Friends" such a strangely satisfying would-be hit single in an alternate universe. These songs don't jerk back and forth between sections, but instead stick with rhythms that feel less like any kind of classic rock throwback and more like something groovier and more eclectic. The crawling neo-dub 311 style beatz on "Creatures" were previously relegated to throwaway interludes like the one that closes out "Ed Is Portal," but here it gets a whole song. Sporting a distorted keyboard line and some tasteful horn overdubs, the song contains multiple vocal melodies that are handled with varying degrees of success. The honest attempts at writing pop melodies in this song and "River" feel underwhelmingly simplistic if not just plain lazy, displaying a sing-songiness that is more suited to children's music than the kind of well-crafted potential singles that I might feel like listening to ever. "Many Ghosts" comes closest with its enjoyable minor key melody that climaxes multiple glorious times when the song breaks for some twinklingly sighing harmonies.

The more "produced like a rock album" approach to recording its music that Akron/Family takes on Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free suits these kinds of songs well, however flawed they may be. It displays an evolution in sound and approach that I would not have predicted but that I am eager to see unfold. They still sound most at home on the two back to back country-tinged folk numbers, "Set 'Em Free" and "The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen," which ironically seem to be jammed most awkwardly into the album's more in-the-red than usual production. Elsewhere, the new sound works more naturally with the compositions, like on the galloping opener "Everyone Is Guilty." There the newfound sonic qualities help the neck leaping angular guitar licks achieve an extra thorny quality, doing wonders to enhance a groove that already sounds like Remain In Light remixed by vikings. If the new edition of Akron/Family is capable of moments like this as well as many of the equally successful or even the not all that successful ideas scattered throughout this LP's exhilaratingly schizophrenic 49 minutes, I can say at least one thing about Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free that I've said about every single thing this band was released: as much as this music excites me, I'm even more excited to imagine where they could possibly go next.

Rating: As we approach the end of the decade and look back at how critical opinion has determined many of our favorite (or not so favorite) bands' legacies, I can't help but feel that the underrating of Akron/Family has been one of the consensus's greatest oversights in recent years. To be a fan of this group is to be treated to consistency and a refusal to repeat itself. There are honestly very few indie rock bands these days that please me on the levels that A/F do. A wide array of classic influences and an acute understanding of what elements to pull from them, remarkable tightness as an ensemble that makes listening to their recordings just as stimulating as witnessing them live, perfect ability to utilize their avant-garde ambitions in a way that only enhances their forward thinking songcraft... the only group that even comes close for me is Deerhoof. Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free wasn't "the album that finally broke them," but why shouldn't it have been? It's singular enough within their catalog that one could easily argue that it blows away everything else they've done. They can appropriate African rhythms like the Dirty Projectors, spew out obnoxious rackety bullshit like Animal Collective, and probably do whatever the hell Grizzly Bear does. Is it because they smile too much? Is the noise-making a little too genuine? Is everybody just done with beards? Kind of a shame, really, because this is art rock that isn't afraid of anything, that could give half a fuck about embarrassing itself. Maybe it's really just terrible, but I haven't listened to any new music more this year, although The-Dream, DJ Quik & Kurupt, and Neil Young's album about his car come close.

Fuck everything that's not The Beatles.

Download Link: "Many Ghosts"... a fine little interestingly produced pop song. Not much else on the album sounds like it, though. Whatever.

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