’ve read at least two histories registering the impact of traveling family singers like the Rainer Family on early American pop music (via their influence on blackface minstrelsy) stretching out over time through the Carter Family and landing on heavy hearts from the Jackson 5 to the Danielson Famile. Singing families are attractive, a quirky Americana cliché that runs through the heart of pop. So please note the slash: You are not being introduced to The Akron Family. Both “Akron” and “Family” are words with a comfortable and soothing ring, but divided by the slash they’re just signs, side by side, an oblique surrealist one-liner. Similarly, the music of Akron/Family is a string of acoustic indices recalling a homesteady sort of folksy warmth but underscored with a fractured post-everything back-story. Akron/Family’s self titled debut is an absolute (but glorious) wreck of false starts, abandoned experiments, fractured faux-anthemic folk-rock and somewhat-fettered-improvisation. It is free-associating fantasy, musically and lyrically, pure carnival; deeply flawed; precious and self-mocking, glowing-via-the-glum. Viva the flaws, though.
I’ve often said I’d rather spend my time with a compelling failure then any slick, put-together success. This goes both for records and for people. Success is the reward for hitting the mark and the mark is usually hit because it’s fat and well-worn, clear and obvious and sates a cultivated, manufactured hunger. Stumbling in order to find truth in the cracks, the works that take chances almost never entirely ‘succeed.’ But they are frequently beautiful. They tell us more about each other then they do simply show us the face of some person we wish we were. Joyce once wrote to his wife “the two parts of your body which do dirty things are the loveliest to me.” Likewise, it’s an ugly, scatological desire that is captured musically on Akron/Family, with time and pitch-correction stripped away, drums bleeding into the red, old-timey holler-aping four-part choruses in outer-space, 90’s-era string emulators, acoustic guitars, and mandolins plaintively hymno-tizing flatulent trumpets and damaged Casiotone arpeggiation, wooing them into the center of songs that never congeal…songs that blow kisses to dead lovers followed by fart sounds. This record is rule-unfriendly, decidedly unhip, disjunctive, comic, and oddly heartbreaking: a willful failure enacted in order to effect the only sort of artistic sense and success that matters to four fellas neither Ohioan nor family, who have made one of the year’s most intriguing records and who consistently register as one of my favorite live acts New York currently has to offer. If you thought this was shaping up to be a bad review, check your expectations: this shit is fucking brilliant.
Akron/Family are four guys from non-Brooklyn who have been in Brooklyn long enough to grow Rip Van Winkle beards, record three LP’s worth of banjo-‘n-incense fax-n-friction electro-acoustic folk-wave campfire songs and capture the attention of ex-Swan Michael Gira. Initially the self-willed Baudelairean anti-hero of post-industrial music, Gira went on to establish Young God Records and has since begun to build the label into, unexpectedly, one of the bright lights in New York’s indie-acoustic music scene, bringing out Calla, Birdwatcher, and discovering and releasing the massively popular Devendra Banhart.
But I do not expect Akron/Family to immediately capture listeners (and the press) the way that Banhart has. With a strange and arresting vibrato, an intense visual presence, freely-associative lyrics and a clever knack for hooks and sing-songy choruses, instantly hummable, it is possible to apprehend quickly what he’s about—it sticks fast and sticks hard: as Counterculture a figure as he may strike, Devendra is exceedingly marketable. I see Akron/Family as artistically every bit the discovery Devendra was, but in contrast to the neat package Banhart makes, Akron/Family look imminently un-sellable. Way to go, Michael.
Values The Akron/Family Album LacksIf Akron/Family don’t exactly lack an aesthetic, it only becomes clear after the weight of the sprawl dissipates three or four listens in. The aesthetic is characterized not by the strong voice of a band’s ego, the smell of its barbaric emotional yawp, but by the character of its ecstasy; the peculiar way in which the musicians are able to stand both inside and outside of the logic of the songs and the way they contour the songs and sculpt the joins in a sort of ongoing self-dialog. In this respect they have more in common with Van Dyke Parks’s Song Cycles than their contemporary indie ‘freak-folk’ brethren. They bite off more than they can chew, consistently embrace the wrong solution for the problems they create for themselves musically. And they do it with absolute conviction. While inviting sterling outsider improvisers like Bob Rhainey and Nate Wooley to make cameos on their junkyard sing-along odes, they eschew the peaks and valleys of improvised music and jamband pyschedelia one expects. And although it is not always clear that such abstract and digressive contributions find a place to live within the songs, Akron/Family never takes the easy way out by mixing them into the background as texture; the tensions between the songs and the noisome scribbles and shards of sound are given an equal voice in the joins and interludes throughout the record.
- sobriety and unity of purpose
- coherency from across the room
- a reducible voice
- a reason to empathize
- a single
Expecting confession, engaging cleverness or emotional depth of purpose from the lyrics, the words will appear to be a glaring oversight. But in context of the record this is forgivable. The words are as unassuming and characterless as they should be, providing a content-light, communal cadence for group harmonies unburdened by the weight of pedagogy, narrative or ego. There are, however, noteworthy moments of both poignancy and quirkily playful parlor games: songs like “Suchness,” an absurdist séance invoking Kant, Hegel and Pete Seeger to the tune of Bone Machine in a lazily-recorded porch-song pastiche with the refrain: “I want to see the thing-in-itself / I don’t want to think no more”. [Note: See, for 18th century Empiricist philosopher-types holding that knowledge comes to us via the senses, it appears impossible to be in contact with things outside of yourself, the “thing-in-itself,” since all things were mediated by the senses. For the Rationalists, for whom the thing-in-itself could be known through Reason and Intuition, even faith, there were no such problems.] It is easy to believe that the music on the record is in fact a hymn-cycle to Platonic confrontation with commonness, household things-in-themselves, the music of creaking chairs and an unwillingness to allow for the possibility of radical subjectivity burying you alive. “Four legs on the chair / Three flowers in the vase / Two seconds until / One suchness ten thousand things.” Akron/Family, the starry-eyed, self-doubting, no-wave Rationalists smacking of a conflicted Luddism come off on the side of faith and intuition, trusting the noumenal world the music circumscribes and allowing the songs to spin off into whatever senseless and magical Western frontier territories they may, knowing when to let go.
In an indie-pop era that most values the complex, unified and auteurish statements, this takes tremendously big balls. And bigger balls still considering the framework of discontinuity, abrasion, interruptions, and inside jokes are clearly intentional constructions by a band capable of breaking your heart any day of the week with the type of personal and earthy indie song cycles to make Jeff Tweedy weep. The road less traveled is one that lets in the light and the joy and the comedy of both at the expense of the simpler, schtickier pleasures they are well-schooled in (read: when they do give you what you want, the wrapping paper’s all fucked up). This debut will not be the record of their career and leaves me wanting more already, but it is the right record at the right time and a stupidly profound and convincing debut that is up there with the best releases of the year thus far.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARCH 13 – MARCH 19, 2005
Reviewed by: William S. Fields
Reviewed on: 2005-03-14