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Published: 2011/02/15
by Tom Volk

Akron/Family
S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT

Dead Oceans

S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT
Ignore the eccentric album title. Try to shut the oddball press offering that heralds the album’s release out of your mind. It’ll be fun to have a gander at that after you’ve listened to it a couple of times, just for a laugh. Whether this is acid punk diamond fuzz dusted with Japanese noise and a Cagean field recording is immaterial for the time being. If they did indeed record the album on the side of a volcano in Japan or some old, blown out building in Detroit, it doesn’t make it any more or any less impressive. Yes, the first track is titled “Silly Bears” but hear me out.

A touch of self mythologizing has always accompanied the band throughout their career. It’s critical to the personality of Akron/Family yes, but if you are among the uninitiated don’t let the trademark weirdness that forms the aura around all of their activities deter you. And finally don’t sleep on this album, it’s the best one they have released yet.

What makes this, their 6th proper release, so great? In a word, restraint. It feels as weird to type that as it probably does to read it if you’re familiar with Akron/Family’s work because restraint hasn’t really ever been part of their vocabulary. Don’t look any further than the verbose raison d’etre they have given us for the album to understand that they have never been shy about expressing themselves in the macro sense of the term. This is different though. S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT (S/T II) is utterly devoid of some of the self indulgent clunkers that have crept their way into the bands previous efforts, turning potentially great albums into merely solid ones and sometimes worse. Instead Akron/Family have delivered an album that feels fully composed, pushing their boundaries yet playing within themselves and not pushing too hard to the point of overreaching. S/T II is full of wonderful nuance and bright songwriting that smoothes over some of the rougher tendencies that have prevented their previous releases from being fully realized.

Take the aforementioned “Silly Bears” for instance. Cheeky title aside it is a statement of intent that sets the tone for remaining tracks. Resplendent with staccato riffs from guitarist Seth Olinsky and a driving rhythm it’s easily the best nursery rhyme set to music of 2011 to date. Speaking of riffs, “Silly Bears” is just the first of many scattered treasures throughout the album that go a long way towards proving that Olinsky is one of the most underrated guitar orchestrators of this generation. Witness the relentless trilling that opens “Another Sky,” the brilliant I-could-listen-to-this-on-a-loop-all-day breakdown in the middle of the “Say What You Want To,” made even more powerful by doubling up the line with Miles Seaton’s bass. If that doesn’t satisfy you check out the naked introductions to “So It Goes” and “Fuji I (Global Dub)” done in the spirit of Wilco and Neil Young but wholly of Akron/Family. His tone is somewhere in the sweet spot between lo-fi aesthetically and hi-fi in actual clarity.

The quiet moments on the album lend it its character, the glue that holds the bombast together if you will. Dreamy slide guitar, courtesy of one Ryan Vanderhoof, weave over the hushed intonations of “Island,” “Cast A Net,” and “Canopy.” Not a lot has been made of the former member of the band returning to record with them, and maybe the less said the better as it does add further to the air of mysticism that surrounds the proceedings. Equally mystic is “Light Emerges”, which combines a Steve Reich inspired introduction with a melody that definitely could have been conjured in Japan. It is the unsung hero of the album as it builds towards a triumphant, harmonized crescendo.

The centerpiece of Shinju TNT’s journey comes early on in the proceedings. The combination of “A Aaa O A Way” and “So It Goes” anchor the album with Zen koan Lyrics and captivating guitar work. “Was it meant to be, an act of God or robbery, I myself don’t know and so it goes.” The two tracks make what should be an abrupt shift from the deep bass and fractured singing of the former to the whimsical coda of the latter in the space of four minutes. Somehow it all works, smoothly even, which is remarkable as the end point is miles away stylistically from the beginning. It’s an interesting example of the sudden shifts one experiences in a dream translated to musical terms, a concept Olinsky has mentioned a desire to explore in past interviews.

S/T II isn’t without its faults. Akron/Family’s Achilles heel is their tendency to fall back on hokey platitudes in their lyrics. “Cast a net and cast it wide, open up and what’s inside” or “Say what you want to when you can. Say when you need to understand” won’t be candidates for the lyric hall of fame. Fortunately the instrumentation on both tracks is compelling enough to carry the oversimplified prose.

On my first pass through the album I was really struck by the comparison between “Creator,” the last track on S/T II and “Last Year” the closer on 2009’s Set ‘Em Wild Set ‘Em Free. Their 2009 effort was very much about finding their way and adapting to life as a three piece after the departure of Ryan Vanderhoof. It was very much an uneven affair and as the band sung “Last year was a hard year for such a long time. This year is gonna be ours” they were at least tacitly acknowledging that struggle to maintain their identity in the face of adversity. Listen to “Creator” and you will understand instantly that they’ve come a long way in short time. It’s a triumphant march in praise of the divine spirit, framed by simple piano melody and solidified by the excellent drums of Dana Janssen. Instead of closing with a lament S/T iI: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT closes in a hymn of praise, a parable for a band that has found their way again and delivered fully on all of their promise.

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