Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free

The album cover for Akron/Family’s latest is a raggedy, tie-dyed rendition of the American. It’s a fitting image, as the band’s music is a skewed version of Americana. Like fellow nationals Wilco or a loose-limbed Flaming Lips, their latest finds the group exploring and experimenting new sounds without aggravating the listener.

It might, however, come as a shock to anyone who familiarised themselves with Akron/Family through 2007’s Love Is Simple.

Set Em Wild, Set –  “Em Free could be the work of an entirely new band and it marks a turning point in Akron/Family’s career, displaying not only a new liberation and innovation but, it is also an album of –  “firsts’. Their first as a three-piece after the departure of founding member Ryan Vanderhoof, their first for a new label (Dead Oceans) and their first self-produced record. They are not alone however, accompanied by a small buffet of horns, woodwind and strings that not only complements their core arrangements but enabling the grander visions on offer.

Here is a band that treats songs like ideas, not just another name to put on the set list – and it shows. It’s almost impossible to predict where the album is headed next, as it splays its way from one musical spectrum to the next offering a bevy of delightful surprises (as well as surprising delights) along the way.

The album opens with the Afrobeat influenced Everyone Is Guilty and River. Two cuts that are proof that Vampire Weekend aren’t the only ones who have given Paul Simon’s Graceland another spin recently. The former starts with an incessant groove before teetering into cyclic guitar patterns and multi-tracked chanting reminiscent of Yeasayer, River however takes a similar blueprint but blooms into a lilting anthem.

The territory suddenly shifts with the experimental drones of Creatures and then a harmonica on the opening of The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen introduces a more traditional folk/alt-country sound; a sound that follows for the (semi)title track Set –  “Em Free, Pt 1. Then there’s the rollicking epic that is Gravelly Mountains of the Moon, beginning with docile flutes, then a lurching horn ensemble, before exploding into a full blown psych-rock wig out. Following the lush Many Ghosts comes the burst of aggressive static that is MBF.

The elegiac They Will Appear winds the record down to the finish, followed by the warm paean of Sun Will Shine transforming into a drunken bluster of horns. The final track Last Year finishes with a chorus framed against a simple piano pattern, repeatedly singing “Last year was a hard year for such a long time/ This year is gonna be ours.”

If Set –  “Em Wild, Set –  “Em Free reaches enough ears yearning for new music, then 2009 is most certainly theirs.