S/T II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey Of Shinju TNT
(Dead Oceans; 2011)
By Dom Sinacola | 8 February 2011
Despite the name, S/T II is no sequel. For it to be the long-awaited follow-up to their wonderfully immersive and delightfully weird debut, Akron/Family today would have to be the same band as the Akron/Family of 2005. They aren’t. When founding member Ryan Vanderhoof left to go live in a Buddhist Dharma center between 2007’s surprisingly accessible Love is Simple and 2009’s even more hippie-ish Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, it became incontrovertibly clear: liking the most recent incarnation of Akron/Family is a very different thing from liking the Akron/Family whose sparks were raised under the watchful, beady eye of Michael Gira. And in case any hopes were kept unrequited that their fifth full-length would, along with its egregiously stupid title, represent a reincarnation of sorts, S/T II severs those last overexerted tendons linking S/T bone to S/T II muscle. It severs them for good.
While perhaps appropriate to detail how a spare and shadowy anti-folk group—more communal locus than definable band, serving as a songwriting and performing hub in Williamsburg by night, hopeful Young God signees by day—became a three-piece jam outfit, following them from then to now can be entirely simplified in accordance with their usual way of doing things. Each successive album following balls-out sophomore Meek Warrior (2006) skimmed off a bit more of the band’s abrasiveness, embraced a bit more of their intrinsic Grateful Dead-ening, ramped up keywords like “peace” and “acceptance” to drive home just how
When they say they have no idea what the title of the album means, we believe them, because any other explanation would intellectualize such mellifluous three-piece harmonies, would get in the way of such crunchy guitar licks. When the deluxe packaging for S/T II includes a “flag” of a trippy white skull surrounded by band name and the quote “So It Goes” (also the title of a song here, whose lyrics reflect a Vonnegut-ian immobility in the face of everyday, strange, nonsensical sadness, even if said strange, nonsensical sadness is a homeless person asking for the exact same amount of change one has just accepted from a store clerk at Safeway), well, it all seems appropriate; that no pot leaf silhouette adorns the tie-dyed corner of every piece of A/K swag feels like an oversight. This is, in turn, an album of exploded Akron/Family-ness: the pseudo-spirituality and fireside warmth of the band’s debut made fat and yummy with good vibes. What does The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT mean? “I dunno.” So it goes, amiright?
That song’s a perfect dose of what S/T has to offer. Initiated with a rollicking, mustache-thick riff kicking up dust, said dust is immediately cleared by some bluntly literal lyrics, and dissipated completely by ghostly back-up singers enjambing Seth Olinsky’s feline vocals. Drums patter and pan, tribal because they just have to be; instrumental chops exist as both showy and neutered, modest but admirable, music care of some genuinely nice dudes. Another album highlight, “Another Sky,” breathlessly follows “So It Goes,” warping its guitar line, antagonizing it to go feral only to chastise its cynicism by shooting some dainty synth straight into Olinsky’s face. It’s a cosmic cheek pinch from a mutable godhead. Olinsky responds; other singers in the band respond to him; we’re collectively reminded of Set ‘Em Wild’s “River,” in which “You and I and the flame make three” briefly and without fuss seemed to explain everything about the band—and the band throws up their collective fists, throws out a weedling keyboard line, throws down a handful of confetti. This is the quotidian of a happy band at their very happiest.
That, just as everyone joins in a pep rally of Olympian “woah-oh-oh”s, the prickly woodblocks of “Light Emerges” skip in to provide yet another iteration of the previous song’s unbridled joy—except with some fuzzier effects and hardier harmonies—only confirms what we’ve already gathered: this is Akron/Family now, and this is Akron/Family satisfied. The free jazz of Meek Warrior? That was simply a band lost, a band unhinging their jaw to consume more chaos than their short career warranted, to lap at something uncomfortable, just as they did with Akron/Family and notions of traditional, communal, coffee-house folk.
The Akron/Family of 2005, back when even Cokemachineglow was wondering exactly what it was, were an indecisive bunch. This made them exciting to watch, but vigilance paid them, post-Angels-of-Light-split (2005), proved effort rewarded with diminishing returns. Instead of repeatedly re-defining what Akron/Family was, they seemed hard-bent on somehow having Akron/Family re-define what everything else was. Their all-inclusive love for music and for musicians became, over the past half-decade, some ever-heartwarming collections of harmony, but also a coming-to-terms for most fans, a lot of difficult acceptance that the seething space of S/T was expanding in ways we found incomprehensible. Love just isn’t that simple, guys.
No need for such difficulty anymore. The moniker that emblazons Shinju is that of a family comfortable with its definition as such—as a nuclear unit, as a “band”—a very different unit from the family that stepped reluctantly behind the same label six years ago. “Say what you want to when you can,” they moan; a banjo startles itself, and for a moment the guitars are overwhelming, the drumming stuttered, instability creeping into the song’s otherwise straightforward grit. But then they count down pieces of the melody: “one”—they go faster—“two”—faster and more drums—“three”—so on; all the way up to “six” (as if they’re counting their own years) when their classic rock or jam band or folk family formula breaks down and it’s simply a group of three tightly sync’d guys each getting a turn at showing what they’ve gotten good at. For a moment it’s bluegrass, and for a moment there’s no epic journey to imagine, no erupting volcano to be awed by. S/T II is that moment cupped in one’s hand and blown like dandelion specks at an especially delicious breeze—it is, simply and thankfully, a record by Akron/Family as plain and as forward as we should expect.