Akron/Family's albums get more generous with each release; this one might just be the album of the year.
When a band as talented and ambitious as Akron/Family claim they are trying, with their new album Love Is Simple, to better capture their live sound, it seems like a let-down. It is a such a banal, overstated idea. Many a band have sought to capture their live sound, and all too often this means more volume and less complication. But lucky for us, Akron/Family is smarter than that.
They know that their live show is a far cry from the work on their first, eponymous album. That album is thoughtful and well-wrought, beautiful in its frailty, but also stretches itself too thin at times, barely able to hold itself up. The sheer anarchic volume of the band's live show has always gone a long way towards filling in those holes, and offering a surprising experience for any audience members who only know the band on record. The quiet guys you'd hear in the studio stand on stage and let their amps squeal and wear cymbals out and scream the stale air out of the bottom of their lungs. Clearly, the band has recognized how this energy could help their studio sound, and put touches of it on their mini-LP Meek Warrior.
But now, with Love is Simple, the studio band is coming full-on with the live band influence...sort of. While the band knows there is energy in their live act, they are also smart enough to know that it would not work as a direct translation. Instead, they've smartly taken elements of their live show -- a heightened guitar presence, a more "electric" sound, energetic percussion -- and meshed it with their ability to craft the beautifully quiet. The results are not only boot-in-the-ass surprising, but also the best thing the band has done to date.
The album opens with "Love, Love, Love (Everyone)", an incantatory, chanting track that invites us, ever so gently, to go out and love. The band's always been great at singing as a group, and the opener is no different, but it also serves as a build up to the second track, "Ed Is a Portal". The fangs of the live band start to show here, as the song starts with distant gang-yelling and hand-clapping behind a plucked banjo until, as the vocals rise in the mix and crescendo, the song settles into a dance 'round the fire anthem. It chugs along, full of sweat and blood, showing the band's penchant for folk instrumentation, but laying it over drums stronger than anything on the first full-length. Eventually, the song ends with the band taking us through Ed, who we're told is a portal, and we come out the other side into a spacey drum machine that makes the vocals that sounded so warm for six minutes now seem cold and vacuous.
These same changes come quick and in droves in the album's two middle tracks. "Lake Song/New Ceremonial Music for Moms" starts as a murky folk song, full of bongos and scant xylophone notes. Like many of their songs, hoards of backing vocals come in and the song elevates, but just as it does everything cuts out but the percussion and the song spends the rest of its time breaking down into animal cacophony. It's the most out-of-control moment on the record, with all that live-show shouting over hard-struck drums and sampled noises, and it serves as the perfect hinge into the next track, "There's So Many Colors".
"There's So Many Colors" moves as many times as its predecessor, and stretches out over eight minutes; nothing new for an Akron/Family song. What's different here are the musical touchstones and the cohesion of the song's movements. With this song they start to tap into a classic rock vein that's always been merely hinted at in their work. And not only is this song arena-rock big, it is a bonafide anthem. For half the song, it seems like their same ol' almost-folk, maybe with a tinge of the Kinks in its hook, until a big electric guitar riff comes in and the boys straight rock out. "Sun rise, sun set, sun never set and rise, reach," they sing over and over again, commanding a continuity from the world around them they clearly strive for in their music. More and more people join in with them, and there's this trad-rock congregation all of a sudden, filling your chest with every repeat of the refrain until the song falls away at its highest peak into an exquisite, Brit-folk finish.
Those two songs take up nearly 20 minutes in the middle of the record, but prepare us for the variety found in the album's second half. We get the back-porch ballad "Crickets" (as beautiful as Akron/Family's "I'll Be on the Water), the cascading guitars of "Phenomena", and even a successful shot at a sailor's singalong with the arm-linking blast that is "Of All the Things".
And in all this they don't mind lightening up once in a while. "Phenomena" finds them concerned over people who argue over white rice versus brown, and then in the second verse they substitute Jesus for the rice and continue the argument. There's a song here called "Pony's O.G.", and of course the aforementioned "Ed Is a Portal". These guys know how to have fun, without dipping their toe too far in the cold waters of irony, and also without disrupting the tone of this beautiful album. They bring it all back together with the final track, a reprise of "Love, Love, Love", and you can sort of feel the credits rolling, the band standing arm-in-arm and bowing as the song plays. That they seamlessly bring us back to the place we began shows their ability to take the most hidden of back roads at every turn and still get us to where we're supposed to be. And what makes this possibly the best record of the year isn't just that it gets us back to where we're supposed to "go out and love", but that now, after experiencing all the twists and turns, the swells and trenches of the album, it sounds like a challenge more than a request, like it is impossible -- after hearing music so to the bone honest and generous -- for us not to go out and love.
"Some might think this isn't the right sound," the band sings on "Phenomena". And frankly, if anyone thinks that about Love is Simple, I don't know that its possible to explain to them what they're missing.
Doesn't mean we can't go out and try, though.