It’s been quite a transformation from Akron/Family’s first, eponymous record. Since then, they’ve mostly left that quiet definition of themselves behind for louder, more unruly meditations. Their last two records in particular, Set ‘em Wild, Set ‘em Free and S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, were about exploration, staking out new ground, finding far-off borders and breaking them down. As the music has become more and more about expansion and exploration, the sounds have also grown, both in size and heft. Set ‘em Wild, Set ‘em Free has electronic swirls, noise-experiments, and some major guitar freakouts, while Shinju TNT was a steadier but headier tangle of fuzzy pop leanings and white-noise Americana.
Sub Verses finds itself borrowing from, and expanding upon, both of those records. The guitars hit hard, the drums shuffle but also quake, the bass rumbles, and the songs shift between tense build-ups and spacious breakdowns. It’s an album that plays with space much in the way its predecessors did, but with a different aim. If those records were about getting away, about finding the new, then Sub Verses is about finding shelter, about finding comfort, maybe even home. There’s a stability at the heart of these songs, one we haven’t seem from Akron/Family ever, not even in their acoustic-leaning early days.
Take opener “No-Room”. The title is not an absence of space, not a hindrance, but rather a space defined by that “No”. So while the drums skitter claustrophobically, they do so under tumble-down guitar hooks and spacey keys. The whole tune, both straightforwardly propulsive and rabbit-hole strange, opens up into the kind of near-mystic bliss the band has traded in so deftly over its career. The band sings together, the sounds rumble, and it makes for maybe their tightest rock song since “Everyone is Guilty”. It’s the longest song here, an expansive first statement that leads brilliantly into the astral plane of skronk and clack that is “Way Up”. Similar to “No-Room”, it plays tense sounds—that pulsing guitar buzz—against gossamer keys and perfectly layered vocals. While the band may sing of letting “them run away” and being “way up, way out”, the heavy elements tether everything down. Or, rather, they seem to be building a foundation, something familiar to return to. So for all the floating the track does, it still returns to a center.
The best parts of Sub Verses exist nicely in this space between comfort and the unknown, between growing and looking back on what you’ve done. “Whole World is Watching” is a sweaty, bluesed-out shuffle. It’s playful, the sound of friends dancing their way through the late hours of a house party, but the metallic echo the vocals are soaked in hint at some distant want, some need to break free they once had but are now, perhaps, setting aside in favor of community. “Until the Morning” is the clearest example of the notion of shelter here, a much more intimate exchange between two people dealing with past hurt, one at the door of the friend, the other inviting that visitor in. There’s a familiarity—“just throw your coat down anywhere”—but the greatest trick the song pulls off is how its early quiet feels awkward, even reticent, until the song blooms into mutual comfort, recognition of a long-built bond.
It’s also a song, though, that hints at the limitations of the record. Musically, it’s another fascinating turn for the band, though it does fall into a second-half pacing issue, where the tunes get more spaced-out and lose some of the vitality of the earlier tunes. But there’s something else. The friend who welcomes the visitor in “Until the Morning” wants to unburden that visitor of their worry, but he also wonders when it would be okay to share his own. It’s not the right time, he knows, but there’s also the idea that this needs to be an exchange. Elsewhere we’ve got “Sometimes I”, the slow, ambient track that admits “Sometimes I feel weary.” It’s the most exploratory song in the lot, about going out to find something new, but it always comes back to that “I”. Similarly, “When I Was Young” is all about individual mistakes and growth, about the silliness of youth and, somewhere in there, the leaving behind of that silliness. It leads to “Samurai”, a song that lists small successes, small spiritual discoveries. Things like “When I had no temple, I made my voice my temple.”
So once again we have shelter, but it’s the focus on the self that becomes limiting here. Akron/Family’s music has always felt communal. To see them live was to see a room together, crowd and musicians alike. Even Ed, that one dude, was a portal to something else. On Sub Verses, though, the music often only reaches far enough to wrap around itself. All that discovery is in service to some kind of self-actualization that, while important, feels much slighter than the kind of themes their past work delved into. At the end of Set ‘em Wild, Set ‘em Free, the trio reminded us “Last year was a bad year for such a long time, this year is gonna be ours.” Hearing that, you could imagine being part of that “ours”. It was just the band, it was you too. At the end of Sub Verses, Akron/Family have made a temple out of their voice. It’s a beautiful, often striking temple, one with some wonderful surprises. In the end, though, you’re outside that temple listening in, the visitor that never quite gets to come inside.
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// Notes from the Road
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