Friday, March 20, 2009

Akron/Family - Love Is Simple

ALUYES (Arbitrary Lend Us Your Ears Score): 96%

  • thematically strong, cohesive
  • folk style roots progressive rock sound
  • extremely rewarding album (if you bring yourself to it)

  • real real weird (if that's a problem)
  • difficult as background music (you can't not listen to this)

When I play Akron/Family for people, I always put on "Ed is a Portal", and ask them how much fun they think it would've been to help record the track. I do this to eliminate the typical mindset we put ourselves in when listening to new music, judging it by some nebulous criterion the content of which we may not even be aware.

"Ed is a Portal" is the second track from Akron/Family's second album "Love is Simple", and it goes something like this:

A chorus of at least 15 people are singing what sounds like a native american/tribal chant, with a few different simultaneous vocalizations, driven initially by shaken instruments and tambourines. Strings pick up under the voices: a guitar, a banjo. The lead male chanters (the actual four members of Akron/Family) sing out "Ed is a portal... Ed is a portal... and damned if we don't try!" As they finish, the tambourine beat erupts into full drums.

The multi-vocal chanting alternates with a single vocalist slinging paragraphs of cosmic psychedelic lyricry for a cycle or two before all sound is extinguished but a slow clapped beat and a a chant that's almost a yell: "Liquidating hydrogen! Balloons in relief; the mountains are steep!"

At this point, the song immediately downshifts to a single acoustic guitar, perfectly processed, noodling sweetly through a folk melody. A single male vocalist starts singing a fairly coherent verse; the track sounds, if just for a moment, like the Grateful Dead. But inevitably the snare kicks back in, a glockenspiel, a bit of psychedelic synth, and the lyrics get crazier and crazier, and suddenly there's a sample of a man delivering a lecture on primordial mankind.

Without warning it's just the four male vocalists again, chanting to a great hollering crescendo "To all of the places that I have known!" And as the crescendo breaks, the multi-vocal chanting from the first part of the song returns full force. The song sweeps through another round of vocals and horn before ending with one final triumphant "Ed is a Portal."

Only it doesn't. There's still fourty-four seconds of track. A beat of silence, then a drum machine beat building to a single, harmonized, heavily processed quatrain with a slight echo.
"The immortals gently awaken/
all possibilities open unto one another/
and brothers and sisters begin/
to see truly through strata."
The drum beat continues, with the addition of a fire alarm/klaxon/car alarm syncopation for another seven or so seconds, and then silence.

Ok, so I'll grant you Akron/Family is weird, and sometimes when people listen to this it's just too much for them, it's too different. But the solid majority of people I've played this for agree, in this case, different is awesome.

Love is Simple isn't all like "Ed is a Portal". The album consists, in my mind, of two different kinds of songs. The first kind are very simple; the melodies are classic, the instrumentation traditional, the message universally and explicitly about the importance and simplicity of loving your fellow man. The first and last songs on the album belong to this classification, as well as the track that includes the album title as a refrain, called "Don't Be Afraid, You're Already Dead".

Songs like "Ed is a Portal" belong to the other category. These songs are erratic, incredibly complex, often non-linear, occasionally crowded by overwhelming instrumentation, occasionally devolving into tribal drums and improvised organic mass vocalization. These songs run the gamut in terms of lyricism and instrumentation, from "I've Got Some Friends", which is like a Wordsworth poem but much more rambunctious, to "There's So Many Colors", which starts out as a droning, downtuned chant which transitions into soulful, freeform Hendrix-style guitar, and slips briefly into some light folk vocalization before revealing itself at the end as heavy, dynamic, unstoppable rock.

A song unique on the album is "Pony's O.G.", in that it breaches both categories. There are only eight lines in the lyrics, but the song is primarily a beautiful harmonized melodic vocalization. Mid-way through, it's broken by some alien sounding percussion and a persistant horn, which builds in instrumentation until it sounds like a possessed jazz quartet, which flails itself about frenetically before it looses energy and the initial vocalization rises soothingly from under it.

The song itself is an exercise in contrast: the simple and the complex, the delicate and the chaotic, one simple notion against everything else in the universe, which is why it serves almost as an allegory for the album itself. Love itself is presented as the only stable, trustworthy, pure force amid the storm of our lives. Idealistic, certainly, but refreshing.

Simply put, I love Love is Simple. Musically, it is difficult to label, but it's clean, direct, and intentioned even when it seems spontaneous and organic. There's a heavy folk influence, which I love, moments of unrestrained rock and roll, blues, and a liberal dose of psychedelia. It's not an easy album at times, it certainly pushes the boundaries of traditional musical structure, but if you can handle some strangeness, Love is Simple does not stop satisfying.

Akron/Family - Ed Is A Portal


  1. Great review...lots of useful info

  2. the real question is should i play them in a club? enjoy your writings keep it up -BC

  3. Well, BC, that would depend on how good you are at sampling, and just what kind of club you're talking about.