Akron/Family’s new, preposterously-titled album finds them growing into the indulgences of middle age very gracefully. Whereas Meek Warrior felt like some sort of cosmic séance, S/T II finds its inspiration on terra firma. Perhaps paradoxically, the effect is that the songs are shorter and less prone to the abrupt emotional highs and lows that have made their live show famous. So on “Islands,” when Seth Olinsky sings “I want to swim inside,” before being enveloped by a gorgeous slide-guitar imitation of an angel chorus, it feels more like a gentle unfurling than a cathartic release.
It’s an interesting approach, too, given their supposed history in the newer, weirder side of America. Their split album with Angels of Light had all those surprising harmonica accents, those twisted guitar lines and saloon-ready piano on “We All Will.” Not to mention their downright woodsy debut. But on S/T II’s “Another Sky,” for instance, the band combines thick shoegazey guitar monoliths, hoedown-ish breakdowns about riding on ships (and falling off them), and sheer energy into a thrilling, magnificently catchy pop song. The track exemplifies Akron/Family’s shift towards a more hi-fi, pop culture sort of tradition. What chanting remained on 2007’s Love Is Simple sounded less like psychedelic prayers and more like street protest chants, showcasing a new tendency to inject Beatles-isms into their shape-shifting folk anthems. On their latest effort, no track is longer than 5:45, and they kick the whole thing off with arena riffage and a song about bears.
Yes, Akron/Family has been accused of having dumb lyrics. S/T II won’t change those people’s minds, but they own the naïveté better here than ever before. “Silly Bears” goes “Whenever there’s laughter/ Dancing and honey,” and then, knowing there’s only one way to follow that, Olinsky screams, “I’ll be there/ WOOOO!” The innocence works in the band’s favor on “Fuji II,” a tender 1:22 fragment of a song that emerges after a humid-sounding rainstorm and a collection of synthy tones. “Bitter weather couldn’t stop us/ Thriving in between/ Setting sail for future paradise/ Dreaming futures cast in gold,” goes one of the verses. Sure it’s literal, sure the strokes are broad. But it’s to the band’s credit that shifting from psych-folk burlesque to thoughtful but approachable avant-pop feels more like a change of clothes than a change of heart.
In fact, it seems almost inevitable that a song like “So It Goes” would reprise the occasional skronk of Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, but pare down the song length to just over two and a half minutes. Give them the benefit of the doubt that the spirit of Akron/Family’s participatory, inclusive live performances and earlier work is maintained by their use of more relatable, focused syntax. Given the trans-Pacific production of the album, it might be a little disingenuous to still cop to the campfire-drum-circle-in-space performance style especially prevalent before their previous album. Rather than just beckoning the audience to participate, they’ve disengaged — gone from minister to shaman — and in the process they’ve achieved something just as encompassing.