The background information provided with Akron/Family’s S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT would have you believe it’s the group’s most, well, startlingly cosmic offering yet. Not that 2009’s Set `Em Wild, Set `Em Free was all sun-kissed harmonies and acoustic guitars (recall the album’s climax, where “Sun Will Shine”’s majestic chorus—“The sun will shine / And I won’t hide!”—suddenly warps into ambient noise and free jazz bleating), but the heart of that album’s charm lay in blissed-out pop strummers like “Many Ghosts” and “Set `Em Free”.
But S/T II—the group’s second since signing to Dead Oceans, and since the 2007 departure of founding member Ryan Vanderhoof to life in a Buddhist Dharma center—promises to be different. Its origins certainly suggest as much: the band spent prerecording sessions exploring “underground Japanese noise cassettes, lower case micro tone poems and emotional Cagean field recordings”, layering “thousands of minute imperceptible samples of their first recordings with fuzzed out representations of their present beings to induce… many momentary transcendent inspirations”. Recording took place in an abandoned Detroit train station. Results appeared on the label doorstep, in a cryptically labeled cardboard box. “It had ‘SHINJU TNT’ scrawled across the bottom of the box in black magic marker, and the return address read only ‘AK, DETROIT’.” Later, an album cover: an exploding volcano.
Don’t believe the hype: despite the otherworldly descriptors (and “Silly Bears”, the six-minute freakout-turned-noise-pop anthem that opens the album), S/T is at its best when it capitalizes on the sort of gorgeously layered, acid-damaged psych-pop this group has excelled at since 2005 (think Fleet Foxes on an Acid Mothers Temple kick). Thankfully, it’s one of the group’s strongest offerings yet.
Refreshingly S/T II feels less disjointed than Set `Em Wild, wisely leaving behind jam-funk excursions like that record’s ill-advised opener, “Everyone Is Guilty”. Instead, there’s a warm, psychedelic flow to the record, and it feels somehow fuller. Consider the phonetically titled “A Aaa O A Way”: on its own this is an awfully intriguing two-minute interlude involving a trippy vocal deconstruction of the word “Away”; here, it leads smartly into gorgeous psych-rocker “So It Goes” (first line: “I went away!”), which tightly balances messy fuzz guitar with sunny Beach Boys “Aaaah” harmonies. Elsewhere, the murmured bliss of “Fuji II (Single Pane)”, whose tightly woven drum pattern and muted guitar make it a distant cousin to “Island”, bleeds warmly into the sparsely majestic folk of “Canopy”. The album only falters when it trades in pop songcraft for the sort of sloppy psych-noise instrumental excursions you may be expecting—specifically, on the awkward and aimless “Say What You Want To”.
The centerpiece may well be the blissfully sighing harmonies and pedal steel of “Cast a Net”, which merges warm melodic depth with some inspired studio layering. “Cast a net and cast it wide,” sings the band atop an airy tapestry of oohs and aahs. “You are reborn.” Acoustic finger-picking and weighty melodic effects fade gorgeously into ambient echo until you don’t want it to end. Believe the hype.