Akron/Family are four extremely nice, sincere and well-mannered young men from rural America who came to NYC (in 2002) to make music, hoping to find a thread of real magic still winding through this city's music scene. They certainly did just that, but they did it by retreating into a tiny Brooklyn apartment, where they made their own world instead, in complete and stubborn isolation. They proceeded (while simultaneously growing alarmingly long beards and developing a playful but hermetic quasi-religious/sonic worldview/creed known as "AK" or sometimes "AK-AK") to make several albums worth of recordings on crude home equipment – the material compulsively chopped, spliced, and orchestrated into fractal jewels of song and schismatically opposed atmospheres.
They accrued at least 3 albums worth of music in this obsessive manner. Along the way, they sent me the increasingly compelling results. Soon I was completely won over – stunned in fact – by a show at Brooklyn's Pete's Candy Store, where the music veered from gentle American country folk to unabashed electronic noise to gathering and erupting crescendos, to extended skronk improvisations that then suddenly cut to an LSD version of a backwoods barbershop quartet or a Louvin Brothers spiritual – sometimes all within the course of one ridiculously long "song" – ha ha! When they all sing together it's like the goddamn Beatles or Beach Boys or maybe an eerie and twisted version of The Band.
When we started work on this album we first spent a good deal of time sifting through the trove of already-recorded songs. A few of those are included here with varying amounts of further orchestration. The rest of the songs are highly edited-down studio versions of the abovementioned live "epics", Young God Records not being just yet in the position of being able to release a triple CD debut (!).
They've got an enthusiasm for pure sound too that shows through in many of the songs – note the squeaking chair in Italy that Miles "played" or the weirdly skewed composition of Suchness (but still a formidable "pop" song, in my opinion), or the "drum" in Rainforest, which is actually all four Akrons simultaneously violently beating their chests, the resulting percussive sound being the air released from their mouths with each beat. As we worked, a song would sometimes be described as too "red" or not "aluminum" enough or some other arcane (to me) reference, but inevitably, corrections made with the aid of a screwdriver or maybe the sanded metal rails of a staircase resulted in an unpredictable but "correct" result.
In any event, there's a wealth of sonic variety contained herein, and first and foremost they're great SONGS, and well sung indeed. I certainly hope you enjoy the music!
6/3/2005 | Boston Phoenix | by TED DROZDOWSKI
blends acoustic string instruments with layers of electronic noise and vocal harmonies. These urban Okies from Brooklyn have created a kind of contemporary-primitive style that blends acoustic string instruments with layers of electronic noise and vocal harmonies. Their compositions reflect both the sweet, earthy influence of the Band and the textural applications of Ennio Morricone. And here they’ve written some evocative songs that, thanks to the high plaintive lead voice of Ryan Vanderhoof, tell stories of searching for self-realization, true love, and desire. Layers of sound slowly build as each number unreels. At the start of the epic "Italy," the only instruments are a lightly amplified electric guitar and the squeaky chair that Miles Seaton rocks back and forth to elicit just the right slow groan. Other guitars intervene as Vanderhoof begins to sing, and the song crescendos with a four-part vocal break, tinkling percussion, and minimal drumming that — in the Akron/Family’s quiet, spacy universe — sound like a volcano erupting. As they alternate between explorations of mountain-music roots and unpredictable yet entirely organic experimentation, it becomes obvious that these guys have made one of the more daring, free-ranging debuts of the year. Fans of Devendra Banhart and John Frusciante will dig Akron/Family’s abstraction; those who find Banhart too hippy-dippy will enjoy their more grounded musicality. Michael Gira, the former frontman of Swans and current Angels of Light leader who runs Young God Records, became so smitten with Akron’s approach that they’re now his backing band, so there’s a testimonial
4/18/2005 | Pitchforkmedia.com | by Sam Ubl
a compelling, emotionally complex experience As long as people believe poverty and authenticity go hand-in-hand, lo-fi will never go out of style. Demand for the holey cardigan stylings of artists like Phil Elvrum, Lou Barlow, and Emperor X seems to peak every couple years, and after last year's freak(folk)-out, you might expect a brief recession, followed by the reemergence of a hermetic lo-fi denizen like Elvrum with his strangest sonic odyssey yet. But Akron/Family jump the gun with their new self-titled debut LP, drawing on lo-fi's aesthetic tenets while broadening its instrumental scope.
Lo-fi, yes, but Akron/Family are working with way more than a four-track here: Loads of swampy found-sound texturing belies the complexity of their arrangements. Close-mic'ing and muffled vocals are standard fare, but don't disregard the triple-tracked guitars, string sections, and frequent choral accompaniment. The album varies tonally without swinging wildly, and the instrumentation-- while often dense and effects-laden-- is consistent at its core. Ringleaders include guitar, banjo, bass, and vocals (lots of it). This makes for an easy listen; even at 14 tracks and a shade over an hour long, the album seldom drags. But it's just as easy to extrapolate singularly catchy tracks as it is to digest the album in its totality. Opener "Before and Again" condenses the band's selling points into a multifarious folk farrago, replete with bucolic acoustic plucks, string swells, chirruping synths, and ambient sounds.
Despite the boundlessness of their instrumentation, Akron/Family maintain remarkable warmth (o, that stock descriptor of lo-fi ingenuity!), playing at restrained volumes that invite close listening. Occasionally they bust out with some noize, like the mushrooming electric gee-tar solo on "Suchness", but any departure from the band's typical whisper feels like a wail. Half of the album's sonic density comes from white noise, but unlike, say, The Glow, pt. II, it's used for layering, never as a stopgap between songs. Eight-minute plodder "Italy" issues a steady stream of waking yawns as it squirms to life. The song's lethargic pace may lead some to hit the snooze button, but wait it out: When the voice declares, "I'm ready," it's no joke. Guitars and drums erupt out of their lassitude and hack away at the beat until it no longer exists, while a trumpet brings some melodic semblance to it all.
Try as the band might to weirdify the album, the melodies are irrepressible. Certain songs reveal a jones for back porch folk. "I'll Be on the Water" is the tread back to shore after a long wet day, happily sunburned. At first uncomfortably pensive, the song grows more comfortable in its bittersweet, lovelorn pose, blossoming from a scratchy murmur into a bonfire jamboree. "Afford" is similarly pastoral: notice the bird chirps amid nylon strings spiraling listlessly in the humid mix.
Every family needs a father, and Akron have Angels of Light frontman Michael Gira, whose production draws on the restless, emotive aspects of the band's sound and embraces their sprawl. Frustrating for their imperfections, charming for their listlessness, and irresistible for their melodies, Akron/Family are likable for all the wrong reasons. The album is easy to criticize, yet Akron/Family couldn't/shouldn't have done anything differently. When a band keep you as close and captive as Akron/Family, dwelling on the shortcomings would be depriving yourself of a compelling, emotionally complex experience.
3/13/2005 | stylusmagazine.com | William S. Fields
album of the week
I’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 Lacks
- sobriety and unity of purpose
- coherency from across the room
- a reducible voice
- a reason to empathize
- a single
If 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.
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.