Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free

(Dead Oceans; 2009)

By Calum Marsh | 17 July 2009

As the naughts draw to a close and the—admit it—requisite decade best-of lists preemptively form, reflections abound upon those records unduly ignored or forgotten in the perennial shuffle. It’s a process of taste rejuvenation, and the comfortable satisfaction of renewing your love for something lost is bested only by the thrill of discovering something entirely new. Akron/Family had previously been a band for whom I had only peripheral interest and respect, but the list-making season has opened up their back catalog in an almost profound way. In fact, my fairly recent introduction to their split LP with the Angels of Light bordered on revelatory, taking me by surprise in a way very few records released across this decade have managed to. The reverence with which Akron/Family & Angels Of Light (2005) treated its own grandeur was practically sermonic, and the results were as eerie as they were exhilarating. Frankly, that record is enormous.

I’d prefer Akron/Family retain that album’s whimsical divinity, even over the understated anti-folk of their self-titled debut, but this a band without tolerance for regression or stasis—with an almost stubborn refusal to acquiesce to the demands of their audience (or perhaps just at the mercy of a self-perpetuating struggle against the possibility of boredom) it’s true that no two Akron/Family albums sound much alike. The idea of undertaking such drastic gambles willingly, deliberately extending themselves beyond their comfort zone, is noble in itself, but experimentation for the sake of experimentation has its limits. Particularly when the resulting products consistently confound and rarely deliver on the band’s initial (and tremendous) promise: Meek Warrior (2006) saw the band embracing the emphatic glut that would come most broadly to characterize the group entire (three-part harmonies and free-jazz freakouts being two of the conventions the band retains), though it was only occasionally successful, and then 2007’s divisive Love is Simple rejected characteristic experimentation in favor of generally being cleaner and, um, “life-affirming.” I find that album’s wide-eyed sentimentality a little cloying, but if the direction was discomfiting, it was also largely inconsequential.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free shares little in common with its immediate predecessor. Much has been made of both founding Family member Ryan Vanderhoof’s departure prior to the recording of this record (Wikipedia informs that Vanderhoof now resides in a Buddhist Dharma center, which seems both awesome and strangely appropriate) and, for those interested in the controversy of industry politics, the band’s decision to release Set ‘Em Wild on Dead Oceans rather than Michael Gira’s label Young God, under which aegis the band has put out each of their previous records. Gira’s reputation as a singular, visionary artist has always cast his role as producer in a light of amplified significance, and so his sudden lack of involvement here lends Set ‘Em Wild the gravity of independence. With Gira and Vanderhoof now absent, the question of how much influence the two had on the project in total comes into conspicuous relief; any relative failures or successes are bound to find blame in these obvious shifts and changes.

The introductory shuffle of “Everyone is Guilty” distinguishes itself from the more gaudy and dramatic Love is Simple opener “Love Love Love” with ample gusto, and the momentum picked up early is maintained longer than what an earlier incarnation of the same band would have bothered with. As the song expands and relishes that (admittedly marvelous) riff, the band seems poised to recapture the trip of their split LP’s biggest highlight, the preposterously indulgent “Dylan Pt. 2,” but when the horns bleed in it’s clear that Akron/Family are determined to steer clear of regurgitation. That said, these guys still sound huge, even recruiting a bevy of contributors to flesh out their dwindling core, and when all are lavishly assertive Akron/Family have never sounded better. “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon,” the album’s titanic centerpiece, reminds that grandiosity was and always will be the band’s forte. Similarly successful (and no less indulgent) is the Yes-channeling “MBF,” an instrumental prog number that would border on guitar hero wankery if it didn’t favor abrasiveness over technical proficiency.

Love is Simple flirted with accessibility more than any earlier Akron/Family material had, but there’s considerable friction on Set ‘Em Wild when commercial prospects and experimental tendencies must contend. “Gravelly Mountains” is preceded by the album’s most straight-forward folk rock numbers, delicate “The Alps And Their Orange Evergreens” and the more upbeat “Set ‘Em Free,” and the juxtaposition is jarring. The disc-wide variety gives the album a refreshing, unexpected broadness not captured this well since their eclectic debut.

“Last year was a hard year for such a long time,” the band sings on dainty closer “Last Year”; “This year’s gonna be ours.” What better sentiment could there be for a band fixated on reinvention and renewal? All this superfluous context regarding Gira’s absence or Vanderhoof’s “amicable” departure, all this leads to explanations and interpretations of difference that don’t much make sense—Akron/Family are in a state of constant flux, ever changing, so Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free strikes me as no great sea change (no more than usual, anyway). It’s just the latest iteration of a band that’s never twice the same.

:: myspace.com/akronfamily