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Akron/Family: s/t (2005)

August 11, 2011

akron familyRoll: 1-1-8
Album: Akron/Family, Akron/Family

Akron/Family‘s self-titled debut could be the album that opened my mind to psychedelic rock after years of refusing to listen to anything with the vaguest of “hippie” intentions. Or, rather, “hippie” was fine. It was the subsequent “dippie” that I had a problem with. Stone Roses? Hell yes. Blind Melon? God no.

Though I appreciated and sought-out experimental music, druggy and flowery overtones left a bad taste in my mouth. As long as the experimentation was scientific and modern, without involving nature and myth, I was okay. Powerdrills and garbage cans as instruments? Why yes, thank you. Pan-flutes, sitars and lyrics about faeries? Please, please, please no.

This attitude was duly reflected in my listening habits. When I was a teenaged headbanger, I preferred the glitzy glam of W.A.S.P. and Mötely Crüe to the classic oil projector and wah-wah pedal Sabbath/Zeppelin variety of metal. When I became a punk, I stuck to minimalist hardcore instead of getting swept up in the Butthole Surfers‘ wave of sound. As I matured, I abandoned punk for sterile, stylish indie-rock. My tastes were much more aligned with Superchunk‘s precision power-pop than Pavement‘s sloppy steam-of-consciousness. Precision indie-rock guitars eventually gave way to even more precise Kraftwerk-inspired synths of Ladytron and Fischerspooner, nary a beat out of place nor a mind expanded with swirly studio tricks.

Then all that changed.

A few reviews back I told you about Andrew who tried to turn me on to Six Organs of Admittance. He eventually achieved his goal by exploiting my Achilles heel—Michael Gira‘s imprint, Young God Records.

Somehow, in all of the above musical wanderings, I didn’t notice my two longest standing and most beloved genres, goth and shoegaze, were essentially psychedelic rock dressed up as nihilistic punk and disaffected art-rock respectively. And those were just labels and attributes I had applied to those genres myself. I don’t think Kevin Shields ever tried to hide the fact Loveless was engineered for maximum cohesion with smoking pot. It’s pretty easy to hear Marc Bolan in Bauhaus, Jefferson Airplane in The Cure and the entire history of psychedelia in The Cult once you know it’s there.

It’s an observation that was probably never lost on Gira whose own bands Angels of Light and Swans were meticulously machine-like while simultaneously being a portal to transcendental states of mind. The drone-induced trance Swans put the audience into at the October 2nd show in Toronto was proof of that.

Regarding him so highly, when Gira began signing psychedelic acts like Devendra Banhart to his label, I began paying attention to records I would previously have dismissed out of hand. Devendra lead me to T.Rex, and Akron/Family lead me to everyone else, including Six Organs.

So you would think I remember this record better than I do. Which apparently is almost not at all.

I was originally sent a promo copy of the disc either from Andrew or from Akron/Family’s tour manager who was looking to, for some unfathomable reason, book the band a gig in Nanaimo. Andrew was no longer living in Nanaimo, having sold Blackball Records and moved to North Hampton, but I was still stuck there so he passed my name on to the promoter as a contact.

Clearly I must have liked the album as I quickly set up the show, interviewed the band for the college paper, and assembled a terrible “space-rock” band called The League of Fantastic to open the gig. Still, listening to the disc this week, a proper copy I’d replaced the coverless promo with at some point, it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time. An odd sensation since I’m so familiar with their subsequent albums, especially the divine Love is Simple.

Having already written and recorded a handful of CD-Rs to refine their craft, it should come as no surprise the debut album is a fully-formed artistic statement. Though textured by the same brush as pretty much all Brooklyn indie-folk circa 2005—and aside from the synth-heavy and blatantly Kid A inspired “Sorrow Boy” and “Lumen” which is also surprisingly Radiohead-esque, but from the OK Computer era—the music is already unmistakably pure Akron/Family.

Lazy, folky, country-tinged guitars, some unusual percussion, choruses full of CSNY inspired harmonies, eerie elf voices, sound collages, bells and whistles, kitchen sinks… it’s a recipe that could have cooked up a sickly sweet and contrived take on Sufjan Stevens‘ delicious chamber folk, but instead, thanks to Gira’s signature uncompromisingly honest production, it’s as raw as anything released by Young God.

Raw and honest are the two words that keep coming to mind as I listen. More musical and less concerned with fashion than Animal Collective, more creative and willing to go out on a very thin limb than Iron & Wine. Other than the two Radiohead odes mentioned above, and a few (too many?) obvious nods to The Beatles, it sounds as if they were making music truly for themselves, unconcerned about anything that was popular at the time yet also not too reverential of the psyche-folk traditions of the past either.

Though it doesn’t capture the heady, sweaty, wild and crazy love-in that is the Akron/Family live show, this is perhaps one of their better albums precisely for that restraint. The songs are less bombastic and funky that those on Set ’em Wild, Set ’em Free and Akron/Family II, with more under-the-radar melodies than Meek Warrior and Love Is Simple, but they’re equally as rich, benefiting from the sparser arrangements. The song “Shoes” does hint at the more epic style that would become their signature use of tension and dynamics, but otherwise the album is a pretty mellow affair and one recommended for anyone interested in the psychedelic revival scene or adventurous, alternative folk-rock.

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