Akron/Family Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free

[Dead Oceans; 2009]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: indie folk, quasi-jam, psychedelic
Others: My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses

The prolific Akron/Family and I have a complicated relationship. According to my Last.fm profile, I listen to them more than all but one other band, particularly their sprawling self-titled 2005 record (I remain especially enamored with the gorgeous “I’ll Be on the Water” and hypnotic “Running, Returning”). When the band released their split with then-labelmates Angels of Light, I was even more excited about the group -- it remains A/F’s tightest set of songs, split evenly between wild, anthemic rock songs and front-porch beer-sippers.

Since then, however, the Family has let me down a bit. Not much on the mini-album Meek Warrior piqued my interest, and 2007’s Love is Simple’s strong start turns too goofy, for lack of a better word, by the album’s middle. You see, I learned something about Akron/Family from trying to get into Love is Simple and seeing them for the first time on the supporting tour: they are kinda, sorta... a jam band. But what does that mean, exactly? From my vantage point, these three (formerly four) guys are happy-go-lucky musicians with so many ideas that they’re usually impossible to contain in a three- or four-minute song. But it’s restraint that has produced many of the band’s best songs, and a lack of it that has made their records so uneven.

On Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, that restraint and knack for punchy melodies has eroded even further, yet it still leaves us with a dense, gorgeous-sounding record. “Everyone is Guilty” is Set ‘Em Wild’s “Ed is a Portal” or “Blessing Force” -- a get-the-party-started banger, and like both those songs, it goes on a little long -- about six minutes in this case. In fact, the track ushers in a quartet of songs that is the record’s weakest, including the ingratiatingly bouncy “River” and blasé electronic piece “Creatures.”

There’s so much going on in every song -- vocal effects, a million different kinds of percussion, strings, electronics -- that “Set ‘Em Free” at the album’s midpoint is a welcome breath of air: under three minutes, a pretty acoustic guitar riff, and a lovely, simple vocal melody. The record’s strongest track is “Many Ghosts,” which along with “Set ‘Em Free” account for the only truly hummable melodies on the record.

From there, we’ve got the slow-building “They Will Appear,” a lush, ambitious suite that doesn’t get churning until its fifth minute, and “Sun Will Shine,” which sounds like it might turn into a funky ’70s disco-soul piece, but that crucial beat never quite drops. (Remix, anyone?) As on Meek Warrior, the band closes with a mantra, this time: “Last year was such a hard year/ For such a long time/ This year’s gonna be ours.”

I used to think Akron/Family sounded like a folkier, more experimental version of the late Grandaddy. These days, they’re off on another planet, light years away. It’s difficult to fault them for clearly doing exactly what they want to do, and if anyone’s been set either Wild or Free, it’s these three. I doubt they’ll be circling back to the sound I felt so strongly about, but even the mildly frustrating Set ‘Em Wild, like all the band’s records, has songs I’ll be listening to for years to come. Of whom else can you say that?

1. Everyone is Guilty
2. River
3. Creatures
4. The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen
5. Set ‘Em Free
6. Gravelly Mountains of the Moon
7. Many Ghosts
8. MBF
9. They Will Appear
10. Sun Will Shine (Warmth of the Sunship Version)
11. Last Year

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