AKRON/FAMILY: AKRON/FAMILY (2005)
1) Before And Again; 2) Suchness; 3) Part Of Corey; 4) Italy; 5) I'll Be On The Water; 6) Running, Returning; 7) Afford; 8) Interlude: Ak Ak Was The Boat They Sailed In On; 9) Sorrow Boy; 10) Shoes; 11) Lumen; 12) How Do I Know; 13) Franny/You're Human.
When our distinguished ancestor, the caveman, first invented folk music, he must have been using whatever objects were the nearest at hand in order to surround his singing with atmosphere. Rocks, sticks, reeds, animal bones, you name it: total freedom of expression. It is only thousands of years later that his distinguished descendant — let us call him «the farming settler» for a challenge — decided to «codify» folk music and started progressively limiting it to a given set of specially designed instruments that produced similarly structured, regularized musical patterns. And, eventually, this self-limitation reached its apotheosis... somewhere around Greenwich Village.
Guess what: Akron/Family, a rag-taggy band stemming from various «rural» parts of the United States, are here to reverse the march of time. Like the caveman, they cherish the campfire; only their equivalent of rocks, sticks, and reeds is the laptop computer — nothing wrong with that, either; surely a caveman would have made proper use of its sonic capacities had he been lucky to have access to it as early as fifty thousand years ago. This band's aim, more or less, is to immerse us in that kind of situation.
Akron/Family are generally pigeonholed as «psych folk» or «freak folk», but neither of the two labels is sufficient, because, really, both merely mean «folk music that is not played according to common standards» or, more precisely, «folk music that makes Pete Seeger go for the axe». Certainly they are nothing like, for instance, the Animal Collective — the latter are a form of psychedelic electronic carnival with folk influences, whereas Akron/Family are far more engulfed in the old-school folk idiom, which they distort in subtler, lighter ways.
If anything, the major influences on this self-titled debut are the psych-folk veterans of the Sixties, such as the Fugs and, most importantly, The Incredible String Band. But Akron/Family intentionally drop the quasi-drunk braggard attitudes of those bands; their sounds, even though they may be equally strange, are more frequently cast in the somber, introspective mood of Nick Drake, so that many times over, you catch yourself thinking «wait a minute, didn't they just try to pick my heart with that deep-reaching bit of sound?» rather than «oh no, not another ugly-sounding cacophonization of a perfectly fine folk tune to show that music's not dead!».
Which does not mean that the record does not have its fair share of ugliness. Every once in a while, the penchant for chaos takes over the predilection for melody, and you get stuff like 'Part Of Corey', where it takes a hundred seconds of white noise and blank synth tones to get to a brief acoustic part, or 'Ak Ak', two and a half minutes of sea, seagull, and seaboat noises. Lead singer Seth Olinsky has a String Band-inherited tendency to sing off-key — obviously, he does this as an art form, but he is not even the pioneer in this department, so it is very hard for me to appreciate tunes like 'Running, Returning' either on the emotional or purely intellectual level.
However, once we choose to treat these parts as the standard «audience-alienating» gimmick (imagine the horror if a record like this started to sell! this is simply the band's common way to prevent this from ever happening), the «normal»-sounding parts eventually start pulling together in a pleasant atmosphere of folksy phlegmacy. 'Before And Again' opens things up with a pretty riff and a set of deep-set sighs that could trap you into expecting some stern Gothic delivery — but there is nothing of the sort. The album never ever slips into sappiness, but it is not «dark» and «doomy», either. The best songs rather aim at some sort of neo-buddhist peacefulness, with quiet, relaxed vocal deliveries, echoey steel guitars, and nature-based sound effects ('Afford').
Yes, but what about the laptops? Here comes the truly bizarre part: some of the songs are «embellished» with rather primitive bleeps, beeps, and ch-ponks that seem to have been borrowed out of the early days of PC speaker existence. More often than not, they simply seem to be there in order to lure the critics into pondering their importance. What is the deep meaning of the click sound on 'Afford'? Why is it so necessary for the high-pitched speaker tone to be there on 'Before And Again'? The correct answers are: «none» and «no reason», but, on the other hand, a couple hundred people may have profited from this chance to fill their empty lives with vigorous mental activity. And I have written a whole extra paragraph. And who, other than Akron/Family, has ever had a song out like 'Before And Again'? Nobody. End of story.
In any case, the only extra noise on my personal favorite tune here are the seagulls, and they fit in perfectly with the message: "If you have to stay / I'll be on the water / Catching the next wave /
You can meet me where it breaks" ('I'll Be On The Water'). This is just a traditionally-oriented, becalming, sympathetic, and merely a trifle cruel folk ballad, arranged for guitar and background electronic ambient soundscapes. And about a half of this album behaves the same way — and that is, of course, my favorite half. The other half — the white noise, the chaos, the off-key singing, the pseudo-party atmosphere on 'Italy' — ranges from amusing to annoying, but it is also possible that, against its background, the well-constructed phlegmatic ballads shine out ever stronger.
All in all, this is a strange experience; perhaps not nearly as innovative as it might pretend (what is innovative in 2005, really?), but ultimately moving. Surely there must have been something in the band if the mighty Michael Gira, of Swans / Angels Of Light fame, took them under his wing himself and signed them to his label (Young God Records) — not that the band sounds a bit like Swans, mind you; if you're looking for something nicely suicidal, this is definitely the wrong place. If you're not the suicidal type, though, join me in my thumbs up.
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