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Published: 2009/05/22
by Chris Gardner

Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free – Akron/Family

Dead Oceans

I don't know a band that plays the spectrum as well as Akron/Family, and it begins with a respect for silence. Their self-titled debut evinces a contemplative stillness that make their various religous mantras ("One suchness 10,000 things" or "I'll sleep and wake anew") revelatory rather than hokey. That same respect for silence, that impulse to leave all undisturbed, suffuses "The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen" on their newest record, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free. Emerging from the susurrus of insects at night and lightly backed by horns and ooh-oohs, Seth Olinsky’s plaintive "Things that are still sometimes appear to know" becomes a thing of elusive and slippery beauty.

It’s this same bent, this attention to silence, that makes "They Will Appear Behold" such a slow-growing beauty. It hardly registers on the equalizer for the first several minutes, during which the band's breath tracks almost as loudly as the vocals themselves. The song itself seems to inhale slowly, saving that breath incrementally for the moment when the dam breaks, at which point they blow that breath out in joyous, "Hey! Hey-oh-oh!” bursts. Then, things get (depending on the listener) either very real or very absurd as the band begins shouting for animal nations to appear. Geese, buffalo, horsethey’re all invited. It’s a pretty good barometer really. Either you’ll find this mesmerizing and oddly powerful, or you’ll see a bunch of bizarre wankers in dime-store headdresses spouting nonsense. You’ll find me on the mesmerized side of the fence.

It isn’t all quiet hippie-folk here though, far from it. The Akrons can freak out with the best of them, too. They know that silence must have its opposite, which in this case is blasts of skronk and joy that feel like loose electrical wires ripping—energy unbounded. They couple this penchant for noise with a restless exploration that, when given rein, carries the band into unexpected spaces quickly and often without warning. The elastic clatter of opener “Everyone is Guilty” introduces some incongruous strings atop cowbells and funk before giving way to what Jesse calls the all-hands-on-deck vocal approach of the chorus which gives way to prog bluster (replete with synthiness) before falling into horn-abetted Whoo-Whooing Stonesiness before…You get the point; they pack six or more disparate ideas into the opener and tell you from the word go that there are no fences here, that all is in play, that they feel compelled to explore all corners of the map. And they do: from plaintive and earnest folkiness to free-jazzy shout to drum-looped half-rap, they cover the spectrum.

And yet, there’s a unity here, and perhaps it’s in this earnestness, this sense that they at all moments are giving all they have. They focus not only on their instruments but on intentional presence. The band inhabits each second, and somehow this makes the abrupt shifts or sudden abandonment of ideas more comprehensible. Near the midpoint of “River,” everything falls into a expanse of static-backed near-silence that is hard to imagine in the hands of another band. Amidst the snarey shuffle of the song, this dead spot bubbles up before bursting back into song. It is presenceattentiveness to these incursions into the silence that would otherwise prevailthat allows the band to notice and seize these pockets of space. I hate to go all Phishy on ya folks, but this is a band that fully digs the silent jam in “Divided Sky.”

Later, the whispery folk and Leshian bass of the title track press forward and suddenly die in just such a space, as though here the band has found an impenetrable silence and lets it win out. It’s a silence that’s hard to shake, and the album’s zig-zagging centerpiece, “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon,” struggles to break through it. The track opens tentatively with pan flutes, muted horns and meandering vocals until the two-and-a-half minute mark, at which point the band dives headlong into a swirling throb that batters you into silence-killing clatter and ebullience. The change of gears is jarring proof that silence and noise have equal sway here.

There’s plenty more, like the throat and blister of “MBF” and the drum-loop driven half-rap of Dana Janssen’s “Creatures.” “Many Ghosts” drives noisily forward as layers of mostly liquid sound slide down the face of a song that’s packed with ideasstrings, steel-drummy envelopes of sound, swirly and angelic vocals, chiming twinklesit’s the frenetic cousin of drifty bliss. In short, there’s little that the Akrons don’t do here, and little that seems beyond them.

The album concludes with a pair of mantras, the first of which (“The sun will shine, and I won’t hide”) builds to a shimmer before resolving into the free-form separate-but-togetherness of an “Auld Lang Syne” that feels like another rebirth for a band that routinely sluffs off and discards old skins as it continues to grow. Akron/Family is so bursting with ideas and so willing to follow its own idiosyncratic and capricious muse that you can hardly predict where they will go next from moment to moment, much less from album to album. But if this albumwhich, it should be said, is their best by a fair marginis an indicator of what’s to come for the Akrons, it probably says only that they will continue to move inward and outward and always whirling and whirling, and that the ride will be unpredictable and beautiful.

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