Akron/Family - Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free (Dead Oceans) Eric Nielsen 4.16.9
The new Akron/Family disc is coming out May 5th and it's their first without guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof who went to live in a Buddhist Dharma Center Tsogyelgar/Flaming Jewel (or so the story goes) sometime in 2007. Following up on that story sounds more interesting than reviewing this record. Mentioning this first allows me to talk about the disc in this context, because so much of the music is similar and has so many of the same elements, yet it's so different without him. Not only is it their first disc without Vanderhoof, it's also their first on the Dead Oceans label (home to SD locals The Donkeys).
OK here's my premise and it's a tough one to play out. Remember the album Boces by Mercury Rev and how amazing and dark and dirty and mysterious it was? And then David Baker left the band and they had a transitional period into their kind of Disney soundtrack sound? Well that's what I feel like has happened to Akron/Family and this new album. When they were working with Gira and Young God records, there was this air of mysterious beauty. That has now changed, leaving something missing. All the elements of the band are still there, but it's so much less chaotic, so much more mainstream, and without the fantastic dynamics of the earlier records. Sorry to say, but compared to the earlier albums, it's almost boring (I absolutely adore their earlier albums). Nothing on this release touches the craziness of Raising the Sparks from Akron/Family Angels of Light album.
There are pleasant tracks, like the title track of the album, but it doesn't begin to touch the supernatural sounds of their earlier albums. It actually hurts to write this review because I have loved this band for a few years and have shared their spirit. I will never forget the first time listening to Akron/Family, flying over 100 mph in a bullet train in Japan, between gigs in the smoking car. Watching amazing scenery out the train window; perfect visuals matching the magic soul-touching music. Gravelly Mountains of the Moon comes close with the wrong and weird group singing. That was always one of my favorite things about the band, when everyone would sing together unabashed, unrestrained by rules, with patched together parts of songs. Now it just sounds like so much other stuff out there...like The Flaming Lips (I noticed they'll be playing All Tomorrow's Parties in NY in Sept. that is curated by The Flaming Lips). There's nothing wrong with it, it's just formulaic, the enchantment is lost.
"Put me in let me run with the ball"? These lyrics make me cringe. It reminds me of the old SD band Rust singing "hit me, I'm wide open"...sports references don't, in my mind, belong anywhere near a spiritual rock band. Maybe some people could not handle the earlier over-the-top seriousness of some of the lyrics, but this is the antithesis to some of the earlier beautiful work they did. Many Ghosts is a nice song on the disc sonically, but with all the strings and overproduction, it slides together in some kind of muck.
Granted, some may be into the accessibility of these songs, but where is the gem, the golden, the broken child, the memorable? Gone are the found sounds, field recording vibe that gritted up the early work, replaced by studio sounds. Where do you go now except maybe into the dharma center and let something new well up from the center of your being? I want to hear the 'bad' recording style, the 'out-of-tune' singing, the cool whatever laissez-faire attitude coming together without being so forced, so contrived. Gotta say even the cover of the disc is wrong. Tie-dyed American flag: boring, predictable, much like most of the album. Without the earlier releases to compare this one to, maybe it would stand on it's own. But in comparison, this one disappoints.