Akron/Family | ReviewThe storm before the calm October 26, 2006
On its second full-length, Akron/Family delivers more of thetranscendentalist free folk that's made the band famous, or at least famous among all of the right people. Ex-Swan Michael Gira loved these hirsute young Brooklynites so much that he not only signed them to his label but also hired them as his backing band, the latest iteration of Angels of Light. Another well-placed fan, the producer and compilation kingpin Hal Willner, enlisted the quartet to serve as house band during some of the recording sessions for his recent Rogue's Gallery anthology [see Sound Patrol, Sept. 7]. Bloggers describe the group's live shows in rapturous, quasi-religious language; what with the beards and the banjos, the campfire harmonies and the sweaty epiphanies, the whole experience seems suspiciously like Bonnaroo for people who wouldn't be caught dead at Bonnaroo.
It would be easier to mock A/K if the members, young and scruffy and hopelessly hip as they are, weren't so frighteningly adept. Equally proficient in art rock, old-timey folk, and experimental jazz, all four of them sing and play an array of instruments. Meek Warrior's opening cut, the nine-and-a-half-minute "Blessing Force," is a kitchen-sink compendium of the A/K sound. It begins with tribal polyrhythms (possibly by free-jazz heavy Hamid Drake, who guest-stars on the album), which are soon augmented by a distant bleating and a smear of electric guitar. A jittery math-rock figure devolves into generalized clangor. All of a sudden, all of the instruments but the drums drop out and an insane four-way babble madrigal begins, a nerve-fraying jibber-jabber jam peppered with handclaps. Then a wiry little Televisionesque guitar line worms its way through the clouds of patchouli, and you assume that "Blessing Force" has found its sweet spot here, barely a third of the way through the song. But just when you start to submit to the delicious jangle, it's morphed into this funny pentatonic acoustic microhouse kind of deal, which, lo and behold, you like just as much. Then come a bunch of junkyard drums and dueling-feedback psych guitars that almost get a little hair-metal at one point, and you're more than six minutes into the damn thing and not sick of it yet. In the final part, a saxophone titters crazily against a faint drone of guitars, and another sax joins in, and another, until it's like an amplified hive of monster bees. Gradually you start to notice a howling maelstrom in the background, a deep, gaping-maw, disaster-movie kind of sound, and then everything stops, just like that.
After this apocalyptic prelude, the rest of the album can't help but come off as somewhat anticlimactic. It sure is pretty, though. With its ringing open chords, dewy harmonies, and slight Indian tang, "Gone Beyond" could easily be an early Cat Stevens outtake. The Sun Ra-ish "No Space in This Realm" blends a hippie-boy choir with languid flutes, trancey guitars, slappy percussion, and a gentle wave of horns. Anchored by a lovely descending acoustic guitar pattern, "The Lightning Bolt of Compassion" contains some of the album's best singing, only it's in an unrecognizable, probably made-up language that sounds like pidgin French, Japanese, Swahili, and Klingon. The final cut, "Love and Space," is an a cappella hymn in which each of the four members takes a turn singing subtle variations of the melody while the other members harmonize behind him. It ends with all of them singing the song's title over and over again, in perfect four-part harmony, until the phrase stops making sense and starts bleeding into the surrounding silence, a peaceful thrumming that you barely notice, like cicadas or your own heartbeat.