Love is Simple

(Young God; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 24 September 2007

Akron/Family seem destined for a long career of alienating their fans. After an eponymous debut of lo-fi folk that virtually defines the word “languid” the band started chasing their muse down the rabbit hole, embracing wildly divergent stylistic tangents, often in the same song. For a band that’s always had a kitchen-sink approach to instrumentation (including the best use of a rocking chair I’ve ever heard) this might seem natural; the appeal of their debut, however, lay in its maintenance of a consistent mood and pace. While I still often find the erratic structure of the tracks charming, the problem here is that the individual elements no longer see to stick and the stylistic shifts more often than not come off awkward and self-conscious. Casual references to the Beatles (“Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead”; the “Love Love Love” bookends), the Grateful Dead (“Ed Is A Portal”), and Neil Young (“Phenomena”) shouldn’t sound so out of place together as they do here. In other words, the band isn’t near as weird or spontaneous as they’d have you think.

It doesn’t help that Love Is Simple also finds the band as patchwork in their spirituality/philosophy as the title might suggest—though, to be fair, I haven’t really paid much attention to the band’s AK AK “religion.” Whatever: if future disciples come to my door with tracts, I’ll hear them out. For now all I have are the intelligible portions of the lyrics which run the gamut between wide-eyed new-ageisms and oblique psychedelic fragments. And while I’d gladly accept meaningless lyrics, particularly in the interests of maintaining the general feel of the music, it’s hard not to be irritated by a band that seems unable to separate idealistic pattering from childlike indulgence. “Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead” consists entirely of its title lyric and “Don’t be afraid / It’s only love” repeated in the verses, with the full band repeating “Love is simple” in drawn-out harmonies for the chorus. It’s a nice enough song, but it’s hard not to miss the college poetry slam strain of a band attempting to say something really succinct and brilliant. I keep picturing the ghost of John Lennon, mumbling phrases from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Sad, because the band still has pretty remarkable skills as a rock n’ roll band: “There’s So Many Colours” falls just behind “Raising the Sparks” for the best Akron/Family song, at least in terms of their more anthemic, energetic material. It begins with the full band singing, a cappella, “There’s so many colours / Without the dirty windows,” an introduction which could front an A Silver Mt. Zion song — a comparison which gains more weight when you consider both bands’ collective and idealistic frameworks. It’s one of the few longer tracks here that actually seems to be building, its zenith the ridiculously addictive chorus where the band sings, “Sunrise / Sunset / Sun never set and rise to reach.” It’s a great song and probably the best reason why the album as a whole doesn’t work very well: every track is either an epic rocker like this one or mines the slow and wistful side found primarily on their debut. The latter would be fine, were it not for the stripped-down approach to production (evidently an attempt by Akron/Family to translate their more energetic live shows onto record), which makes funeral-paced tracks like “Crickets” seem even more tedious. The one slower track that does work is “Pony’s OG,” which is equally sleepy but actually interesting to listen to—particularly midway through when the song floats off into psychedelic/ambient washes and muted horns, followed by disembodied voices and backwards drum tracks, then ends with the initial melody over acoustic guitar. Akron/Family aren’t exactly pioneers of these sounds (the sudden shift in the song sounds dangerously close to Linda Perhacs’ “Parallelograms”) but it’s hard to think of another otherwise unobtrusive ballad verging on such psychedelic terrain only to return again to its humble origins.

Other tracks on Love Is Simple contain isolated brilliance: most of “Ed Is A Portal” works as a sustained single-chord ragga, but then the song ends with some clunky and entirely out of place electronics. Such excess can typically be forgiven, but so much of this album seems to be made up of these little diversions; for a band so seemingly naive and free-wheeling, too much feels unintentionally tongue-in-cheek. Likewise, “I’ve Got Some Friends” starts out with a delirious chorale melody straight from ’70s symphonic prog, only to drop it just as quickly (tellingly, someone then says: “Hey, have you ever noticed how everyone is crazy?”). “Lake Song/Cermonial Music for Moms” is mostly good, particularly in the way it winds hand percussion around an off-kilter acoustic guitar riff and in its expansive chorale arrangements, but goes on about 2 or 3 minutes too long.

In the end Love Is Simple is less than the sum of its parts. Its balls-out rock is fun but hopelessly overloaded (like, how many vocal tracks do these songs really need?) while its softer sections sound like brief intermissions before the guitars pick up again, making them relatively limp. When the album first leaked Chet Betz’s response was to list sections of it under headings ranging from “Good” to “Totally Wack,” which is about all anyone can do for something so piecemeal. While everyone will have a different idea of what constitutes the strong or weak parts of the album, it’s hard to see Love Is Simple as anything but the sound of a brilliant band with a marginal sense of discretion and flow.