By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
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Some bands content themselves with girls. Their songs are a predictable patter of love and heartache, finding, losing or leaving their beloved to music driven by commensurate conventionality. Akron/Family are the other end of the spectrum. Their songs dig toward the core of human experience and spirituality—not with a shovel, but a backhoe. The music's equally expansive, mining a psychedelic mix-and-match of styles, tones and atmospheres circling their subject with cinematic panache.
Their five full-length releases are a bit like The Amazing Race: There are plenty of odd sights and sounds, sidewinding excursions packed with imaginative and exotic architecture, always making their way to some unseen endpoint. The spirit is one of latter day flower-children attempting to tap the cosmic unconscious.
"I feel a responsibility as an artist to point toward—whether you call it divinity or magic or God—but I feel whatever it is to try to call out to, to speak to, to point to for the world, so potentially through art and music people can start to live a magical life," explains (mostly) bassist Miles Seaton, his heady words poetically punctuated with car horns and the sound of Manhattan street life.
After emerging amidst the freak-folk explosion with their 2005 self-titled debut, the band of multi-instrumentalists underwent a major metamorphosis in 2007. Lead singer Ryan Vanderhoof left to join a Buddhist Dharma center shortly after their release of their third LP, Love is Simple, culling them to trio. Their 2009 follow-up, Set 'Em Free, Set 'Em Wild began a subsequent transformation that's fully realized on their latest, Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT.
Absent Vanderhoof, remaining members Seaton, Seth Olinsky and Dana Janssen share and trade vocals, elevating them to a central place in the mix. Down a member, there's more room to operate. On Set 'Em Free, that spurred a blur of sonic activity and head-swiveling panoramas. They boil things down on Shinju TNT, achieving a precision and cohesion lacking on the prior album, making better use of space and returning to the found sounds, field recordings and inter-song segues that characterized their first album. Hence the Akron/Family II title, according to Seaton. It's both a return and a new beginning.
"I experienced the last record as a little bit chaotic," he says. "We were all going in our own directions and exploring constantly. We actually did a lot of that exploration in advance on this record. We drew ourselves big maps, exchanged pictures and sounds. We tried to write ourselves a story and universe that was as sturdy as possible, so when we actually went to that place we could go completely haywire and kamikaze with the energetic investment. Before, it was like our energy was just going in a bunch of different directions, which made it a little dissipated."
Written in a cabin at a foot of a Japanese mountain, and recorded in an abandoned Detroit train station, the album suggests a blend of natural wonder and handmade beauty, as the atmospheres around them infect the music. Despite working on great equipment, Seaton feels the last album's recording environment was lacking. "On a basic physical level, the room didn't have the vibe, didn't have the super low-end physical power," he says. The train station, on the other hand, had a "feeling of a crumbling bone structure where an amazing reanimation is occurring inside; nature is literally reclaiming that space."
Seaton couldn't be happier with the result—but that hasn't prevented them from engaging in an idiosyncratic form of culture-jamming. While he isn't willing to get too explicit, he confesses there are indeed different versions of the album floating around the inter-tubes, further confounding expectations.
"Why not try to go a little further with what you make or try to realize, to go all the way with it?" he asks. "I want to be an artist. I don't want to be a T-shirt salesman. Seriously, if that's all that's going on here, I'm getting a little too old for it."