Two years ago, I listened to an album so breathtaking that I ended up cursing like a sailor who contracted VD and had his pocket picked. Love is Simple impressed me to such an extent, it was my personal choice for best album of the year. And yet despite, or perhaps because of, all of my proselytizing, the album placed fifteenth in our final, end of the year tally. The preceding tableaux fairly well sums up the recent fate of Akron/Family. There are those, like myself, who seem to want to shout their name from rooftops, while others either unwittingly miss out on their greatness, or are forever befuddled by the band’s incredible scope. Even more head-scratching is the notion that some consider Akron/Family as an ignored, red-headed step-sibling to a bevy of bands tagged with the freak-folk label.
Love is Simple should have been the band’s rallying cry, the album that vaulted Akron/Family into the public consciousness. Instead, the band now lyrically claims, “Last year was a hard year for such a long time.” Near the end of 2008, the Family lost a founding member to a Buddhist Dharma center (this is starting to sound like Lost. Namasté.), and they continued on as a three-piece. But, in a perfect reflection of how people and businesses are coping in today’s economy, Akron/Family is doing more with less. (Honestly, that should probably say `fewer,’ but I’m merely echoing the oft-repeated phrase.) Paring down to three has not negatively affected the band’s sound in any way. In fact, they’ve improved. While I found Love is Simple a near perfect album, Set `em Wild, Set `em Free has done the impossible, namely both building on past success and finding new ground for innovation, all with one fewer member.
For at least the second time, Akron/Family has the most apt and exquisite album cover, after having displayed an actual human heart on Love is Simple, they go with a slightly worn and disproportioned American flag with a tie-dye swirl in place of stars. It’s as if the band is saying instead of being 50 separate territories, we should all be peacefully together in one chaotic but beautiful mess. The cover image is as if Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On blended with Black Crowes’ Amorica and a Dick’s Picks collection. And amazingly, that’s also how the album sounds. One listen to the jaw-dropping opener, “Everyone is Guilty,” should go a long way in proving just how diverse this album truly is. In this one song, the tempo and style changes multiple times, even calling to mind passages from the albums listed above. This kind of song structure appears a few times within Set `em Wild, setting each piece apart from becoming just `songs,’ and instead becoming suites within particular tracks. It’s almost classical, or at least like long jazz compositions, moving swiftly and seamlessly from one musical idea to the next.
If Love is Simple is Akron/Family’s Sgt. Pepper’s, then Set `em Wild, Set `em Free is their White Album. In a word, it’s expansive. (But, as can be seen by the length of this review, I really can’t keep it to just one word). In keeping with the theme of doing more with less, Akron/Family manage to create as much diversity in Set `em Wild as on that Beatles’ self-titled affair without resorting to releasing a double album. The trio of Seth Olinsky, Miles Seaton and Dana Janssen move from electronic chanting psychedelia (“Creatures”) to placid guitar picking campfire folk songs (“The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen”) in a matter of moments, all before culminating in a series of songs that are delightfully schizophrenic, in the pastoral lay become orgiastic rock opera become post-coital poetry of “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon,” and the back of the `airbrushed conversion van’ guitar mastery become primal scream / metal abandon of “MBF.” Handclaps, horns, whistling, crickets, harmonicas and assorted electronic flourishes dot the landscape of Set `em Wild, making the album a multi-layered affair, even in its more serene moments. And yet, amidst all the layers, the album is still rooted in guitars, the most glorious example being the standout, “They Will Appear.”
In our capsule review of Love is Simple in the Best Albums of 2007 feature, our writer Michael Henning wrote that Akron/Family wrote music that was `distinctly American.’ I couldn’t agree more, and with this latest collection of songs, I would argue that Akron/Family has placed themselves amongst an elite group of bands creating albums that are considered “quintessentially American.” Born to Run, Pet Sounds, American Beauty, Are You Experienced?, or collections of songs from Woody Guthrie are all examples of what I mean. Set `em Wild, Set `em Free, with its miraculous and harmonious synthesis of rock and roll styles, from folk to ’70s rock, and punk to psychedelic pop, can now be nestled among them.