Akron/Family | Review'Meek' to inherit the earth Arts and Entertainment: Music
October 17, 2006
"They hide drugs underneath these benches," Dana Janssen, the propulsive force behind much-acclaimed folk-rock quartet Akron/Family, said about the wobbling leather booth we were sitting on.
"Yeah, this is an Italian drug-laundering neighborhood."
I glanced around Brooklyn's Gimme Coffee! in disbelief, eliciting a belly laugh from the habitual customer. "No, I'm just kidding, I'm just kidding."
It's the same kind of jokey relationship with naiveté that draws a line in the sand between listener and performer for Akron. Sometimes they play the Zen Buddhist teacher, proclaiming paradoxes unintelligible to the unpracticed student. Other times, they're just four guys bemused by the impracticality of their own wit. At a Manhattan show earlier that week, guitarist Miles Seaton yelped, "Come on, you know this one!" over the impromptu tune of "Happy Birthday." On their studio recordings, though, this wit is almost nonexistent.
Meek Warrior, the latest addition to the family, plays like an invigorated meditation on metaphysical forces capable of expression only through song. A variety of contributors, ranging from legendary jazz drummer Hamid Drake to members of Broken Social Scene, assist the band in condensing their ethereal melodies into dense musical endeavors. But content alone is not the only reason why Meek Warrior is being dubbed a "special" album. Consisting of a mere seven songs with a run time short of the 36-minute mark, the album has rarely been considered an LP without being asterisked.
"Originally it was just supposed to be an EP," Janssen explained. "We were in Seattle or something, and we told Michael Gira [of Young God Records], "We want to put out an EP ‹ is there any way you can record something?" We went in, we had seven tunes, [thinking] we might not use all of them, we might use all of them, whatever, but then it just came out sounding really good, and when we played it to Michael he was really excited about it and decided to use all the songs and label it a "special" album."
The effect of the Sept. 26 release has yet to be seen. Up to the present date, Akron's relative success on the indie market, though important, has not entailed monetary gratification. The tenacious process of touring, self-promotion and recording is still that of their early career as a band.
"It's weird," Janssen said. "We were driving across Canada in February/March and we had no heat in our van ‹ the heat had broken ‹ so you're sitting there, you know, breaking those warm things to put in your gloves and your boots, and so you have those and your blankets, and as a result we got sick, went to Iowa City to play a show, and then after it was over around like midnight, drove from there to Chicago, slept in a van on the street for like two hours, woke up, went to record with Hamid for ten hours, drove out of town that night to play another show, turned around and came back, did the same thing, recorded another ten hours, then we drove to Milwaukee ‹ we were all kind of out of our brains."
Before rejoining to record Meek Warrior, the four band mates had actually taken a leave of absence from the cyclic process.
"We had been going nonstop for over a year," Janssen said. "It was just a good time to kind of have space of our own."
One look at the track list for Meek Warrior proves that "space" had been on their minds even after reuniting to make music again. On the album itself, the prevalence of jubilant hooks like "space is love" and "love and space" corroborates the claim that time apart was an agreeable move.
From a stereo concealed somewhere behind the front counter, someone changed CDs and put on The White Album. Earlier, Janssen had listed The Beatles as part of Akron's running rotation while on tour. Some parallel contemporaries drew contrasting reactions, with Brian Wilson and crew only garnering a fraction of the affinity shown for Bob Dylan.
"We played on Letterman not too long ago actually for this sea chanteys record we did," Janssen said. "We were just singing backups with this guy Baby Gramps, but the bass player in the group was Tony Garnier, who's been Bob Dylan's bass player since '89. I mean, I was just sitting there like "you played with Dylan!" I didn't say it out loud, but I'll write him a letter. I'll say 'Tony ‹ you guys need a drummer for the next tour, gimme a call.'"
If nothing else, it'd probably call for a sweet tour bus ‹ maybe a working heater, too.