Angels of Light

TIME OUT NY #493 | Steve Smith

FAMILY MAN Michael Gira surrounds himself with old friends and new acquaintances on stage.


It¹s radio promo mailing day at the Carroll Gardens headquarters of Young God Records, and label head Michael Gira is a busy man - busy stuffing envelopes. Sitting at a sturdy wooden table, the imposing former front man of industrial-rock pioneers Swans packs padded mailers with new CDs by his current group Angels of Light, and his new signing Akron/Family, (They¹re the same band, more or less, but we¹ll get to that later.)

Apart from the hours spent in the studio or on the road, Gira, 51, estimates that running Young God occupies 80 percent of his time and energy. For a working musician, that doesn¹t seem like an ideal arrangement. ³No,² he agrees, ³but it¹s not like I expect to be treated like some precious artist. I have a label, it¹s a responsibility, and I enjoy it. There are tedious aspects² ­ he gestures towards the CDs and envelopes ­ ³but it¹s better than hanging sheetrock, which I couldn¹t physically do anymore anyway.²

It¹s also fair to say that Gira devoted a fair amount of attention over the last four years to freak-folk flag bearer Devendra Banhart, whose burgeoning fame could be viewed as Young God¹s first break-out success. Having released three albums and an EP on the label, the artist has moved on to Beggars Banquet. Justifiably proud of Banhart, Gira now waxes enthusiastic about Akron/Family, a Brooklyn-based quartet whose self-titled debut comes out Tuesday 15 March.

³When I finished Œall Devendra, all the time,¹ I finally had time to go through the stacks of demos that had accumulated,² Gira says. ³I put theirs on and almost panicked at how good it was. I went to see them at Pete¹s Candy Store, and they were phenomenal. I got to know them a little bit, brought them over to my house. It¹s important to me that anybody I work with can just come hang out, walk the dog with me, actually be a friend ­ or at least companionable. They passed that test, so we started working together.²

Gira¹s first order of business was to produce the band¹s debut. ³A lot of time was spent just trying to keep them in check, because we had a limited budget,² he recalls, laughing. Inspired by Akron/Family¹s almost reckless creativity, Gira drafted the entire band to play on his own new album, The Angels of Light Sing ³Other People,² which also comes out on Tuesday. An extensive tour opens with a Tonic benefit on Friday 11, at which Akron/Family will open with its own set, then back Gira as Angels of Light.

The wholesale replacement of Gira¹s backing band raises the question: Was there some kind of breakdown between the singer and his collaborators? ³A couple of them moved to Berlin,² Gira offers. ³But yes, before I dismantled the whole thing and started over, it was starting to sound like a band, which I don¹t really want. I¹m more interested in trying to make a little cinematic vision for each record. I¹d rather look at a song as a potential arrangement, rather than as something that these four people play.²

As the title implies, most of Gira¹s songs on ³Other People² are tributes to friends, abstracted just enough to remove biographical specificity. Like the hazy, blurred photographs that appear in the CD booklet, each song evokes the barely discernible outline of a distinct individual. Only the scabrous ³Michael¹s White Hands,² which conjoins the King of Pop¹s travails and the war in Iraq, does the music assume the vehemence of Swans. Otherwise, the tone is by turns wistful and bucolic. Oddball instrumentation and soaring vocal harmonies suggest that Gira and Akron/Family might be pulling pet sounds directly out of Brian Wilson¹s cracked noggin.

A self-admitted control freak, Gira loosened up on the new album, inspired in part by Akron/Family¹s spontaneity. ³Some of the qualities in my voice frighten me a little bit ­ a little out of tune, you know?² he says. ³But I just let it go on this one, and I probably will from now on. I¹m sick of having a near coronary with every record I do.²