Akron/Family is a three piece experimental rock and pop group specializing in DIY methodology that leads to their uncompromising blend of pastoral folk, post-rock, psychedelic rock, and art house rock. Arising as a quartet in the early 2000’s from Brooklyn’s gentrified underground music scene, they caught the attention of Swans bandleader Michael Gira and formed an early alliance that assisted both bands to succeed with the growing listener-base for a 2000’s urban take on Pink Floyd prog aesthetics mixed with American 60’s psychedelia and art house rock. The band is known for their bombastic and welcoming live shows that consistently find hippies, hipsters, working class, and university music types all dancing barefoot in mutual appreciation for each other. Not to mention blowing everyone’s ear drums, their amps go to 11 you know? With the success of their final album as a quartet, Love is Simple, and their biggest breakthrough record Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, they were poised to begin experimenting with the folkiness and art rock recipes respectively found on those two records. 2012’s S/T II: The Cosmis Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, was enigmatically created by the band in a hidden woodlands getaway and mailed on scratched CDRs to Dead Oceans label in a ghetto-ified brown box, taped all wrong and with nothing but cryptic messages inside. This anecdote amounts to that record’s execution, actually. A large leap into orgasmic electronic hedonism and psychedelia trances, but ultimately forgettable and too overly cryptic to bridge with their prior stuff in any way. So it’s not entirely off-base to say that expectations were varied for their newest release Sub Verses (Dead Oceans, 2013).
The album sees the band return to some of their folk tendencies present in the original incarnation of the band. The album, for the majority of the tracks, are more easy-going than Akron/Family has been in years. When they do push for the higher energy, more aggressive sound they became known for on Set ‘Em WIld, Set ‘Em Free the tracks are a direct contradiction to the easy-going nature that anchors the album. And intermittently, the band introduces concept tracks and motifs that are a complete change for them, which was expected to be sure. Though the album has some solid tracks, the album falls prey to hot and cold syndrome due in large part to the awkwardness of the stuff they’re experimenting with.
Breezy lap steel, jangly steel string, distant major chord harmonizing vocals set the pace in some of the sunny songs and serve to anchor the album with some fundamental, accessible tracks. These tracks are generally forgettable and actually, believe it or not, parochial sounding when compared to A/F’s catalog. Yes the songs are easy to listen to, but they don’t have the listener pining for the repeat button. One exception is the album’s best track “Until the Morning” which is a new kind of success for A/F in which they’ve mixed avant-garde instrumental tones with Arcade Fire style fist waving organ and very sentimental vocals both in melody and lyrics. This is a song to listen through the whole album just to hear once.
The album succeeds predictably when A/F bridges standard rock infused riffs and bombastic drum work with their excellent sense of three part vocal harmonies to create a sense of rolling times and opening up the tracks, providing a sense of spaciousness over the syncopated fuzzed out instrumentation. They are very good at crafting tribal, contrapuntal experimental sounding rock. Add to this some pretty solid vocal work, both in melodies, harmonies, and general timbre, and you’ve got a pretty winning combination for hard-edged indie rock. This is A/F doing what they do best. Tracks to be sure to catch that combine these elements in a winning way include opener “No-Room”, “Sand Talk”, “Holy Boredom,” and “Sand Time.” These tracks are allegedly completely knocked out of the park in their live shows. On the record they are almost caricatures of A/F of days past, but there is nothing better than the kind of crashing, sacred crescendos these songs would feature in a live setting. If you do see them live, be absolutely certain to bring earplugs.
Unfortunately, the bumps in the road are a bit too much to overcome for this record to be the kind that follows the listener for very long. The experimental Scott Walker influenced operatic delivery and sadistic sounding strings on “Sometimes I” sounds lame and misdirected. The horn infused doo wop on “When I Was Young” is decent sounding for any other band, but for A/F to go this route one would expect something bigger than the weak lyricism presented with juvenile mo-town horn lines.
This record marks A/F’s return to their previous experimental rock formula with nodular offshoots that are spotty at best. Some of the better moments here are a breath of relief for the beloved heavy hitting trio’s return, but the weak moments prevent the record from having staying power. To their credit, at least they keep pushing themselves as artists with every record. By remaining true to their experimental efforts, their next album will be eagerly anticipated and listened to on release day, just like every album of theirs so far.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl Senior Writer
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