Thursday, June 4, 2009

Album of the Week: Akron/Family "Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free"

Once again, I missed my self-appointed deadline for posting this review. However, I was on a highly-important rescue mission that took priority. Still, my bad. Here are my loosely organized thoughts about the recent Akron/Family album, Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the individual songs, let me say that this is a tremendously wonderful album that is as varied in its influences and emphases as it is consistent in its awesomeness. And, bonus, the liner notes include lyrics, as well as a cool mini-poster of the album art, in case that is your scene. Not nearly enough bands include lyrics anymore, so when someone does I love it and salute the decision. Thanks, guys.

Track-by-track, this album is terrific. There are only a few moments of the album I'm not in love with, but one of the moments I don't really dig is in the first track, "Everyone is Guilty," when for about 30 seconds in the second minute there is some Phish-esque pentachordal noodling that consistently evokes bad memories of junior high jazz band soloing and, more recently, To Be A High Powered Executive shows. Still, in the very same song, I love the repititive "Everyone" lyrics and everything else so much (especially everything after the 3:15 moment in the song) that it is plenty awesome enough to not only make me mostly forget about the Trey Anastasio riffs, but also to justify the length (about 6 minutes on the album) of the song.

The second track, "River," is like a much more complex Bishop Allen tune, if Josh Caterer was the vocalist. And on valium. The track also reminds me, somehow, of a singer I grew to really dig during my years in Texas, Jenny Morgan. I love how the vocalist on this track sings certain lines, most especially the phrase "wordless whispers, sighs, and pleas." I wish I could buy an album where my favorite 15-20 singers all sang different versions of this song.

Next, the album switches tracks entirely (a consistent theme), and "Creatures" is led in with hip hop beats that might as well have been laid down by Pam the Funkstress, which accompany lyrics that could have been copied from a nineteenth century poetry volume. Lots of upper register tinkering on this tune, especially on brass and the keys. Really, there is so much going on in this song, the best way I can think to describe it is as art school music but with substance (i.e., not the new Grizzly Bear album) at its finest. This phrase describes the whole album, really, and as a record it belongs in the same conversation as recent releases by Sholi and Yeasayer. High praise, indeed.

"The Alps and their Orange Evergreen" is very pretty and simple, what east coast music writers would call a "palate cleanser," and is followed by "Set 'Em Free, Pt. 1," from which the album title comes and which, after hearing its gargantuan greatness, leaves me with only a single question: Where is Pt. 2?!?!?!?. The track begins with a beautiful interlude, something I could see Marshall Tucker Band playing if they were on ecstasy. The song is pragmatically zen, and I would relish the opportunity to chat with the lyricist and ask what, if anything, this song was a response to. (Note: If you only watch one of the video clips I posted here, watch this one.)

"Gravelly Mountains of the Moon" begins with flute and then adds in horns, sounding very much like a restrained Polyphonic Spree song. In fact, had someone only played me the first 60 seconds, I'd have immediately bet $10,000 that Tim DeLaughter arranged it. I'd have lost that money, of course, but probably been distracted (for a couple seconds at least) about the anti-windfall when the song just starts fucking jamming, with the "prove me real" lyrics and lines about geometry and geography. Once again, the band totally justifies the length of the song, both by the sonic excellence and what are arguably the most interesting lyrics on the album. I just love alternating "Put me in and let me run with the ball" and "Ha!" lines.

The next song, "Many Ghosts," actually surpasses those lines, though, with this brilliant one: "It goes like this kids: na na na na" - a reference to the narrator's "story." It is at this point in the album, I (and you, if you give it your attention) was hit with the following realization: These dudes are smart. That's about the highest praise I give, ever, and probably because of that, this song is one of my two favorites on the album, along with "Gravelly Mountains of the Moon" and the album closer, "Last Year."

Track #8 ("MBF") is not nearly as brilliant, not even close. In fact, along with the previously mentioned 30 seconds of noodling on the album opener, this is the only part of the album I didn't like. And this song I actively hated. 'Nuff said. I don't hate the next track, "They Will Appear," but I'll admit I'm pretty darn ambivalent about it, which is my typical response to what I feel is excessive harmonizing. Obviously, harmonizing is a big thing with this band, but Track 9 takes things beyond the point of no return.

The band gets back in my good graces, though, with some more Tim DeLaughter-inspired work on "Sun Will Shine," though this time the Spree spirit seems imbued not in the music but in the lyrics. The entire song repeats the phrase "Sun Will Shine, and I won't hide" over and over. The phrase is nice enough, but what is wonderful about the song is how it builds, rotates, evolved, and how about 2:50 into a fuzz envelopes and then overcomes the vocals until the fuzz and a horn slowly fade away, leaving room for an alt-jazz combo freestyle that starts as dissonance but eventually gels loosely into a bad-ass rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" (seriously, who are these guys?), which perfectly sets up the album closer.

"Last Year" begins simply with piano and eventually another batch of simple, reptitive lyrics come in ("Last Year/was such a hard year/for such a long time/this year's/gonna be ours"). This song is so glorious it could be an Obama rally track.

Obviously I love this album. When I do my mid-year music review at the end of the month, it will certainly be high in the rankings, somewhere probably in the top 3. Returning to my homemade, Sound Opinions-inspired rating scale, Set 'Em Wild, Set' Em Free earns the first-ever top rating, the elusive "Get your ass to the fucking record store immediately and buy this shit before the Smithsonian requisitions all copies as cultural artifacts of awesomeness" score. So seriously, buy this one, like now.

And, better yet, make plans to see these dudes when they come to Clevo and play, of all places, the Rock Hall on a Wednesday night for FREE! The Rock Hall hasn't released their lineup for their Summer Sessions series, but the band's myspace page has them scheduled for a show there on July 22nd.

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