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Artist: Akron/Family

Album: Akron/Family

Label: Young God

Review date: Mar. 1, 2005

Akron/Family are a collective of four multi-instrumentalists, none of them from Akron, who combine a formidable assortment of modern and pre-modern styles into a cogent, singular whole. Stationed in Brooklyn, the band has struck a symbiotic accord with Young God Records head Michael Gira – a similar arrangement to the one that’s benefited Devendra Banhart for the last few years. Gira helped the band winnow their prodigious body of raw material down to a single full-length, which they professionally re-recorded (and Gira co-produced). In return, Akron/Family assisted Gira with the instrumental arrangements on his new Angels of Light album, which is an unusually lithe and nimble excursion for the Swans founder.

With their “alarmingly long beards” (Gira’s words) and fondness for the latent sounds and rhythms hidden in everyday objects (squeaking chairs, thumped chests, grinding gears, and the like) Akron/Family are in the same spiritual orbit as out-folk and psych-rock players like the Jeweled Antler Collective, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Charalambides, Tower Recordings and Six Organs of Admittance. The differences, however, are instructive. Akron/Family’s self-titled debut is devoid of many of the genre’s more gnarled elements, including dense Fahey-style fingerpicking, Eastern sonorities, and lengthy passages of drone. And for all of its diverse stylistic elements and organic sounds, the record largely eschews improvisation or compositional clutter. In other words, contrary to Gira’s impression, their beards seem fairly tidy and trimmed.

Lead singer Ryan Vanderhoof has a lonely voice that sounds more like Thom Yorke’s than Banhart’s when it climbs into its highest registers. And in fact, a portion of the record is akin to what Radiohead might sound like if influenced by traditional American antecedents. “Running, Returning” has an “Idioteque” sense of urgency, with Vanderhoof calling over a cacophonous swirl of guitar, percussive noise, and a chorus of distant, shout-sung voices. But after its final swell, the song drains into a chiming, freefalling folk-guitar figure, which is quickly buoyed by a symphonic rush of indecipherable squiggles and clomps – well outside the gleamingly polished 21st century interests of Yorke and company.

These transitions are all over the record. Trying to delineate the many stylistic swerves, or to parse individual instrumental lines, would prove dizzying. A song that begins with plaintive nylon strings and a distant, electronic homing signal (“Before and Again”) will have picked up thundering toms and processed human yelps by its conclusion, its melodic gist having been transfigured somewhere near the mid-point. Lush, dreamy swells, a la Mercury Rev, will flare up and dissolve into pulsing, electronic pop (“Sorrow Boy”), while a melancholy scrap of indie-folk will catch a soft jet-stream of air and float elegantly into a dusky campfire sing-a-long (“Afford”).

The fact that Akron/Family are able to so skillfully navigate through these transitions is the key to their success. Their slow-burning songs are well greased at the joints – adorned with alien metallic clacks, skittering tones, tape hiss storm clouds, and field recorded thunder, they’re also strung through with wispy melodies and Beach Boys-redolent vocal harmonies. Depending on the listener’s persuasion, these elements can function as a breadcrumb trail or a five-course meal: like San Francisco’s Vetiver, Akron/Family are the rare band that can operate effectively on both sides of the mystic-folk and indie-rock divide. Here’s hoping their debut garners the attention it deserves.

By Nathan Hogan

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