AKRON/FAMILY: SET 'EM WILD, SET 'EM FREE (2009)
1) Everyone Is Guilty; 2) River; 3) Creatures; 4) The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen; 5) Set 'Em Free Pt. 1; 6) Gravelly Mountains Of The Moon; 7) Many Ghosts; 8) MBF; 9) They Will Appear; 10) Sun Will Shine; 11) Last Year.
Lead vocalist Ryan Vanderhoof quit Akron/Family soon after the release of Love Is Simple, leaving the rest of the band as a trio. Solution? Why, simple: just hire a supporting team of nine extra studio musicians — and release your biggest-sounding album up to date!
Of course, saying that Akron/Family are trying to «branch out» on this record sounds odd, as if there ever was a time when these guys were content to strictly adhere to one rigid formula. And yet, branching out they surely are... again. If Love Is Simple took its cues from The Beta Band and The Animal Collective, this time they seem to be digging deeper, soaking in influences from the classic prog-rock scene(s): Yes, King Crimson, and particularly the Canterbury acts. In fact, already the opening track, 'Everyone Is Guilty', jumps in with the jazzy feel of a 'Roundabout', moves through a hard-rocking section technically worthy of a 'Red', and has just about the same number of signature changes per minute as yer average National Health composition.
But leave it to Akron/Family to stun the listener and make already the second track sound like it belonged on a kiddie album by They Might Be Giants — a bouncy, catchy, and supremely nerdy attempt at crossing liberal college student with sentimental hillbilly ('River'); a song that, certainly, neither Yes nor King Crimson nor any Canterbury-related musician would ever think of writing — except, perhaps, as a lame one-time joke. Akron/Family, however, are not joking, or at least one never knows where the joke starts and where it ends.
Still, Set 'Em Wild, as far as it seems to me, hits the target further away from its center than Love Is Simple did. On that record, the balance between wildness, boldness, and tenderness was just about right. Here, they gravitate away from the sentimental hippie attitudes. Dug deep into the middle of the record are songs like 'Set 'Em Free Pt. 1' and 'The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen', lovely hippie-folk ballads with nothing particularly «freakish» about them; and the album ends with the big and moving anthemics of 'Sun Will Shine', very impressive until the final carnival noise section needlessly cuts in to deflate the atmosphere.
But the rest, once again, reverts us to the art of dicking around with no particular place to go. Heaps of free-form noise on 'Gravelly Mountains Of The Moon', wild industrial screaming on 'MBF', sort of a New Wave-influenced folk-jazz thang on 'Creatures', replete with tricky programming of the drum machine — I fail to see how exactly these performances tie in with the more «heartfelt» parts of the album. And even per se, they are not all that interesting. So much weirdness for weirdness' sake, from all periods, epochs, and genres has already been synthesized, and Akron/Family still haven't found a proper way to make a new kind of weirdness, all their own.
As a result, I probably like this record for all the wrong reasons: the band's new portfolio of interests should be Set 'Em Wild's major selling point, but its best songs are still the ones that could easily have been written for their self-titled debut. Misguided Moment No. 1: 'Last Year', on which the band, simulating inspiration and determination, chants "Last year was a hard year for such a long time, this year's gonna be ours" against some minimal piano backing. I know they are just trying to cheer themselves up after the loss of a key member, but it is hard to get rid of the feeling that with Love Is Simple, they pulled themselves up by the hair as high as possible, and now it is really back-to-the-swamp time.
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