Akron/Family | Review
SAN DIEGO CITY BEAT | Jed Gottlieb
The inspired relationship between Akron/Family and Michael GiraJan. 25/06
NO, NO, YES, HELL YES
It's pure hubris to claim that everything glorious about rock 'n' roll is contained in the first eight minutes of Akron/Family's new album. But
it's kinda true.
Minutes one and two of Akron/Family & Angels of Light sounds like Sonic Youth dueting with Phish on a cover of Abbey Road's 'Sun King.' Minute three is John Zorn interpreting Hendrix interpreting Sun Ra, and the rest is the Beach Boys-meets-Yes, only folky. Yet, surprisingly, it wasn't Akron's range that impressed the band's patron, mentor and kindred spirit Michael Gira.
'We were actually a little worried about playing our louder, electric stuff for Michael because he got into us through the more mellow, acoustic stuff on our first album,' says Ryan Vanderhoof, one of Akron/Family's four singers/multi-instumentalists.
Vanderhoof didn't know Gira's history when the two met. If he had, he wouldn't have worried about scaring off Gira with a little dissonance. Gira's former band, The Swans, arose from the same NYC underground scene that produced Sonic Youth. For two decades The Swans made some of rock's biggest sonic messes. Now Gira is primarily a solo artist (with Akron/Family currently serving as his backing band) and head of Young God Records.
Despite Akron's talent for making some substantial sonic messes themselves, Gira wasn't immediately impressed. A few years ago they were sending demos to every label they thought might be interested in putting out their music. After hearing a demo, Gira wrote to the band, telling them he wasn't interested- but, hey, keep up the good work.
Later that year, Akron sent him another demo. Gira replied with another polite note of rejection. Months later, after Akron/Family had given up on Young God, they received yet another note from Gira. He'd revisited one of their discs, liked it and wanted to see them live.
'We just happened to be doing a residence that month at Pete's Candy Store in New York and he came to see us for three weeks in a row,' Vanderhoof recalls. 'We were definitely nervous that first night. After we met him we were less nervous, but it still wasn't easy. He was coming with the clear intention of wanting to put out a record for us.'
In the span of a year or so, Gira's tune dramatically changed. He signed Akron/Family to Young God and asked the band to back him on tour and in the studio. He threw understatement out the window and called them his 'favorite band in the universe.'
He also pushed them to experiment even more, resulting in some of the most striking moments of Akron/Family & Angels of Light. Throughout the album, the band members sing in eerie harmonies that are often beautiful and, more often, ugly and dirty. One of the best examples is 'Raising the Sparks,' which has the band chanting and shaking like a gospel quartet conducted by Tom Waits.
'The group-singing is relatively new, but it's something that Michael really wanted us to do more of,' says Vanderhoof. 'We were tentative, but he really pushed us to do it. And it's worked out well because it's given us a unique sound.'
It's also spurred some impressive sing-alongs. At a recent show, Vanderhoof says the band reached such a groove that the crowd began chanting the guitar line in a round. The a cappella breakdown went on for 10 minutes.
The Akron/Gira relationship is reminiscent of the Talking Heads/Brian Eno association. And while Eno and David Byrne had a nasty falling out (resulting in the excellent break-up tune 'Burning Down the House'), it seems Gira and Akron are still in the honeymoon phase. There are two more albums in the works, plus another tour. With any luck, all will have the same inspired spark as Akron/Family & Angels of Light.