AKRON/FAMILY: AKRON/FAMILY & ANGELS OF LIGHT (2005)
1) Awake; 2) Moment; 3) We All Will; 4) Future Myth; 5) Dylan Part II; 6) Oceanside; 7) Raising The Sparks; 8) I Pity The Poor Immigrant; 9) The Provider; 10) One For Hope; 11) Mother/Father; 12) Come For My Woman.
Technically, this is one of those «split albums» that usually get recorded out of cash deficit and, just as usually, pair two worthless artists in a desperate effort to multiply zero by zero and get a non-zero result. This particular situation, however, is slightly different, because «Angels Of Light» is just a moniker for Michael Gira and whoever comes along to back him up on his next studio session. On this studio session, he happens to be backed up by members of Akron/Family, at the chronological peak of their symbiosis. So, all in all, this is a legitimate Akron/Family release, with the first seven songs representing «pure» Akron/Family and the last five representing Akron/Family playing five cover tunes — with Gira as special guest on vocals.
It does matter a lot to count it as legitimate, actually, since some of A/F's best material is to be found here. Stretching out in all directions and frequently bursting out of the solitude-embracing shell of their self-titled debut, the band finally shows that it may really be nice to have them hanging around — even though no one's still sure exactly why.
They certainly go out of their way to prove they are different. Admit it: not a lot of people would open a record with a song which is called 'Awake' — and which, during all of its running time, does its best to try and put you, the listener, to sound, healthy sleep with a sound, healthy, monotonous acoustic folk guitar line and sound, healthy, droning vocal harmonies. Only to wake you up, after all, with a crash-boom-bang as the second track, 'Moment', opens into a wall of free-form noise that may be intended to make Eric Dolphy crawl out of his grave.
Upon first listen, it is these bits of shock power that you will probably remember the most: the insanely prolonged "aaaaaah" chant on 'Moment', the ritualistic, out-of-control scream orgy on 'Raising The Sparks', the massive mock-tragic buildup on 'Dylan Part II' (where is Part I, and what does this all have to do with Dylan anyway?). Later on, though, melodies start to emerge on the more quiet numbers, such as the minimalistic 'Oceanside' and the first, acoustic, half of the 'Dylan' thing. And in the final run, the expert will appreciate all the overdubs and psycho-layers of sound on the superficially blunt, straightforward folk romps ('Future Myth', which has enough stuff going on to warrant a dozen listens before one gets used to it).
The good news is, they are still being interesting, and they get better at it by throwing even more ingredients into the pot — if free-form atonal craziness is not enough for you, there is also shrill, hysterical prog-rock guitar soloing ('Dylan' again), ballsy (and catchy!) rock'n'roll-ifying of village dances ('Raising The Sparks'), and, just generally so, a complete lack of understanding where their train is going to stop in a few seconds from now. The bad news is — I still don't quite get it. Not only does this constant experimentation lack any explicit point, but all of its originality feels forced, and all of its non-originality feels... well, non-original.
In this respect, the Angels Of Light side of the story is actually better. Veteran guy Michael Gira used to be even crazier than any of these people while being a Swan, but his craziness seemed far more legitimate to me. And now he is not so much a crazy guy any longer as simply an intelligent human being who loves to... cover Bob Dylan: the band's rendition of 'I Pity The Poor Immigrant' is not only faithful to the original, it is also wonderfully well sung. The other four songs are dark folk originals, slow growers that make a simple, but lovably melancholic antithesis to Akron/Family's emotional canvas — more complex, perhaps, but also more prone to suspicions of fakeness. Twist it too tight, and people may lose interest in disentangling it.
Still, I view this as an improvement. The ugly off-key singing is gone, the diversity level has gone up, the band shows some teeth and muscle in their playing, proves that it is capable of creating decent melodic hooks, and, overall, restores the reputation of «freak folk» as a musical movement that would really like to expand the limits of «folk» rather than just serve as a pretext for pretentious goofing. And in a couple dozen years from now, we might actually come to understand what these guys were about — after all, there are some people out there who give Trout Mask Replica a fair chance, too. Thumbs up, on lend-lease.
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