CD Review of Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free by Akron/Family
Akron/Family: Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free
Recommended if you like
Devendra Banhart, Robert Wyatt, Spiritualized
Label
Dead Oceans
Akron/Family:
Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

U
p until now, Akron/Family have conveniently been referred to as "freak folk," a term commonly reserved for those who lean towards pastoral inclinations but purvey them with more skewered sensibilities. And indeed, after three albums that have combined meditative musings and experimental intents, the handle seems aptly applied. These days, however, Akron/Family are an even less predictable lot, and a variation of that description – "freakish folk" perhaps – might be more in line. Following the departure of lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Vanderhoof, the remaining three members – Seth Olinsky, Miles Seaton and Dana Janssen – seem to have abandoned any inclination to retrench with the tried and true, and have instead embarked on a course that could perhaps baffle even longtime admirers. While many outfits would be reeling from the loss of such a critical component, specifically someone like Vanderhoof who put his own imprint on the band’s persona, the trio seems to see it as an opportunity to brave uncharted terrain and try new avenues of exploration. The results are intriguing to say the least, although most attempts at accessibility seem to be sacrificed as a result.

Then again, Akron/Family has never been a band that put a premium on an easy embrace. Their array of influences alone – a potpourri of forebears that runs the gamut from Captain Beefheart to Sun Ra and seemingly all entities in-between – make any attempt at pigeonholing frustratingly ineffective. So given that unorthodox stance and the band’s attempts to venture even further into the abstract, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free breaks all the boundaries, boldly living up to its billing through every interpretation. Opening track "Everyone is Guilty" exploits that freeform mantra to the extreme, retaining a basic tribal chant and funky beat that veers off into unexpected tangents along the way. "Gravelly Mountains of the Moon" follows suit, starting on a slow drift before giving way to a discordant dissolve and then fading with slower motion. "MBF" provides full-throttle frenzy, a lunatic rush that’s unbounded and out of control.

Fortunately for those who favor a more orthodox execution, the new album does offer select moments of respite. The catchy, compelling refrain of "River" offers something akin to a sing-along, while the blithe desires of "They Will Appear" and "Sun Will Shine (Warmth of the Sunship Version)" ply starry–eyed sentiments to their obtuse ambiguities. "Last year was a hard year for such a long time / This year’s gonna be ours," they declare on closing track "This Year." Those who have found the difficulties of the year past merging into the present may find that statement somewhat overly optimistic. Nevertheless, Akron/Family ought to be credited with at least attempting to purge the pessimism.

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