Akron/Family | Review
The Weekly Dig / Boston | Michael Brodeur
All together now
"Quit your job, move to New York, we'll live in the shittiest neighborhood in the city, and we'll start a band. It'll be fucking great!"
Ahh, the mating call of the North American indie rocker. Who in the prime of their youth hasn't heard its sweet, completely impractical song? And yet, as tired and done and old and over as the notion of leaving behind one's proverbial Pennsylvania to find success on the sticky stages and glossy pages of the big city may be, that's precisely what Akron/Family did.
They also did the requisite crappy-apartment-in-Bushwick-right-above-volume-fascist-neighbors thing until they could afford separate quarters and a rehearsal space; as well as the 50-copies-of-their-demo-stuffed-into-an-Astor Place-mailbox thing, complete with "here goes" finger-crossing and starry eyes. The thing is, that shit actually worked.
From the 50 vellum packets sent out by the four transplants, they received two replies: a friendly pre-printed "thank you"/"sorry" card from Merge ("That was nice of them," Akron multi-instrumentalist Dana Janssen says) and a relatively detailed appraisal and critique via email from ex-Swans czar and contemporary fringe impresario Michael Gira.
"He started coming to see us perform every Sunday at Pete's Candy Store, suggested we work together on recording and releasing and album, and we were like, 'Great!' Janssen recalls, sounding residually dumbstruck even three years after the fact.
Then the story momentarily pauses while Cameron Crowe goes out on the balcony to have a cigarette and phone his mom.
But this whole thing just seems so easy, doesn't it? Gosh, what happens next? Does Uncle Jerry die and leave the kids his decrepit old tour bus from the '60s? You wouldn't expect one of the most original bands out there to spring from the oldest story ever told, but if there's one thing clearly demonstrated by both the making and the music of Akron/Family, it's that cliché (cliché as it is) is hardly barren‹it can be mined, refined and used for fuel.
The debut record that rose from their initial encounters with Gira (as producer) caught them at their songiest and most level‹clear-minded but elaborate, decadent but modest, noisy but controlled. It was a strategy, no doubt, devised by Gira himself, whose flair for introduction could be credited for launching that whole Devendra Banhart situation. Gira's Young God label, even with all 10 of its toes wiggling in the tepid freakfolk puddle, would prove to be the perfect forum for Akron/Family to come into their own. Interest swelled as label devotees were automatically curious about what a Young God rock band could possibly sound like, while the collaborative yet laissez-faire M.O. of the label ensured they'd never sound like one thing for long.
Perhaps the best realization of the band's ease with variety is last year's split album between Akron/Family and Gira's own Angels of Light project (for which the boys served as backing band). On the Angels' half, the Family holds down beaten slo-mo country grooves for Gira's moany baritone to crawl across. On their own songs, Revolver-ish arabesques collapse into storms of noise that would make Glenn Branca giggle; limpid, croony ballads erupt into mathy fits and stutters; and Jewish mystics crash an Appalachian hoedown. Throughout it all, the band sings in unison. Sometimes this unison sounds like a gospel choir from central Vermont; sometimes it sounds like the occupants of a plummeting elevator‹but it always sounds like Akron/Family.
"That's directly related to Michael's influence," Janssen says. "[Bandmate] Ryan [Vanderhoof] had worked a lot with harmonies in the past, but it was something that Michael really wanted to pull out of us and showcase. That's the role of a producer, partly, but really, it's a gift that Michael has for seeing things."
One song in particular from the split album, "Raising the Sparks," features a stretch where the instruments drop out entirely, leaving the four hollering, clapping and practically leaping right off the recording. It's as explosively lonely as it is powerfully vulnerable‹Akron/Family at their best.
"How can I put it‹it means to uplift yourself," Janssen says. "So often, you have to deal with this whole image thing. People just want to be cool. And that's fine. I like cool people. I don't want to be a preacher‹the point is to let it go, loosen up, not worry about what the guy next to you thinks of your dancing."
And, like the nightly climax of any rock dream come remarkably true, you can bet there will be dancing at this week's appearance‹or some approximation thereof.
"People lose their shit," he says, "and I think we've already lost ours."