One Suchness, Ten Thousand Things
(Or, even, “AK-AK”.)
No longer are the two mere descriptions of the sounds a cat makes when coughing up a hairball, they are also the only description anyone ever has for the madness behind the methods (or vice versa) of Akron/Family, the newest signing to Michael Gira’s Young God Records. The world is now being introduced to Akron/Family via a double dose of digital media, as they appear on not just their own self-titled debut album, but as the backing band on The Angels of Light Sing “Other People”, the newest album from Gira’s own Angels of Light.
You see, Gira appreciated this “AK” philosophy so much that he actually let Akron/Family in on the songwriting process for ...“Other People”, allowing the band to come up with many of the textures and sounds that make that particular album so enthralling.
So what is “AK”, exactly? It’s hard to get a grip on what it is that makes Akron/Family’s music so special without knowing at least some of the mindset that goes into it—unfortunately, we are left sans explanation, with only the music to guide our guesses. My own guess is that “AK” is a sort of spiritual openness, a willingness to dispose of boundaries and find the true best way to express something. If the creak of a rocking chair might provide some much-needed ambience to a contemplative folk tune, you’ll hear it. If tuning one string of a guitar slightly flat allows the instruments of a given song to mirror the words’ slightly off-kilter character, it shall be done. It’s not just about finding the right notes and making the right noises; it’s about finding new, more effective ways to make those notes and noises.
The Akron/Family aesthetic manifests itself most clearly on The Angels of Light Sing “Other People” with the minute-and-a-half vignette called “Simon Is Stronger Than Us”. The song’s arrangement sounds like a spinning top about to fall over, a barely held-together amalgamation of banjo, music box, whoops, and hollers eventually giving way to a twenty-five second electric dirge of an epilogue (in a song whose duration is just above a minute and a half). They manage to add down ‘n dirty country swagger to the intense “Dawn”, and they evidently found a bunch of things around the apartment they share in Brooklyn to beat and rattle for the bit of “My Friend Thor” before their lush harmonies and “normal” vocals and drums take over.
Still, to get a true impression of just what Akron/Family is all about, a thorough listen to their self-titled debut is absolutely necessary. Even as they added so much to ...“Other People”, their true nature was suppressed by Gira’s sudden predilection for straightforward folk songs. Akron/Family, on the other hand, is a sheer display of virtuosic song assembly, the likes of which I, for one, have never previously heard. Take “Shoes”, for instance. It opens with a gentle shuffle, complete with snapping fingers, something that sounds like a jar being beaten by a stick, and a banjo doubling the vocal melody. The gentle swing beat eventually gives way to two lines of a cappella sing-along, all four band members singing in unison, using only handclaps and stomped feet to keep the beat. The instruments come back after those two lines, except now in a steady folk style, complete with the four members of the band providing lush four-part harmony. The song, which started with such a rustic sound, gets doves, clover, and rainbows added to it, sending it into stratospheric realms of beauty.
Primary lead vocalist Ryan Vanderhoof sings like Jeff Tweedy straining to hit Thom Yorke’s notes, a sort of broken tenor that melds effortlessly with, say, the inclusion of what sounds like a recorder squeakily droning on its highest note, a background noise that adds a bit of sharp texture to opener “Before and Again”. It’s a song that eventually goes on to feature electronic beeps and more washes of ethereal four part “ahhhh” vocals, before transitioning in a non-sequitur-ish Arcade Fire sort of way into an uptempo acoustic waltz that sounds a bit like a drum circle with a guitar. This is a band not afraid to use contrast to prove their point, as their slowest, quietest moments are usually preceded by a shocking bit of noise—the thousands of bats by way of tape squeal on “Part of Corey” and the particularly loud thunderclap on “How Do I Know” come to mind—serving to adjust the listener’s ears enough to make what follows the startling introduction sound that much more subdued.
It’s tough to say this without it coming off as a cop-out, so I apologize in advance—it’s impossible to describe the sound of Akron/Family in a way that will adequately express just how well their “AK” philosophy serves their music. Descriptions can do little for Akron/Family past make them sound like a mess of a band who writes some songs and tosses the kitchen sink into them. Words simply can’t convey the subtlety and the authenticity that comes through when they are at their best, nor can those words convey the beauty this band can achieve. One thing is clear, however: The music that Akron/Family produces is original, it is sincere, and it is brilliant.