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Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free

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Album Review

Chances are that, a couple of years from now, punters will look back at Akron/Family's Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free as the transitional album in the band's catalog. In 2007, lead vocalist Ryan Vanderhoof left after recording the adventurous Love Is Simple, leaving the group a trio. Seemingly undaunted, Seth Olinsky, Miles Seaton, and Dana Janssen recruited engineer and co-producer Chris Koltay, and enlisted nine other musicians to create the most far-reaching, margin-breaking set of the band's career to date. Where Love Is Simple seemed — and was for the time — groundbreaking, Akron/Family were continuing to split themselves off from the whole post-psychedelic free folk underground and pursue something they would feel comfortable expanding toward. One song might feature acoustic balladry while another would be a full-on rock fest, while another would be a tribal workout and another might have some post-prog overtones. On Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, the ideas are even less conceptual but more satisfying and more focused in songwriting and production. First, there's the great cover nod to Sly's There's a Riot Goin' On, though on this American flag the stitches are frayed and the field of stars has been blurred into something like a weather map representing a tropical storm. It reflects mightily what's in the grooves. Here many ideas are not only considered but fully attempted — often in the same track. Take for instance "Everyone Is Guilty," the cut that opens the set. There are no less than six tempo changes, though it opens with a slippery funky backbeat, Afro-beat percussion, and a slinky yet propulsive bassline before entering a hooky, Beatlesque rock chorus, layering in strings, taut snare, and kick drum, and then chanting above hard rock riffs, a pop bridge, and prog rock exercises in arpeggiatic crescendo. It may sound like a mess, but it's tight as a fist hammering on musical genres and cracking them open wide.

"MBF" is every bit as crackly and proggy as Yes in the middle of a wide-open live jam — complete with a Chris Squire seal-of-approval bass pattern. "Many Ghosts" is a nursery rhyme cum country song with strings, harpsichords, and elegiac rock overtones, all of them sweet and tender. They get underscored with a Jack Nitzsche-esque wordless vocal and string chorus for a few seconds as a bridge and handclaps join it a few seconds later. The effect is gorgeous, and if you can simply let this rather stunning set of surprises wash over you, you will be delighted. Forget the pack-it-in-tight methodology of Animal Collective, Akron/Family give everything its proper sense of space and atmosphere. Check out the lovely, hypnotic guitars and tom-toms in "Sun Will Shine," with its single line sung over and again in staggered choruses before fading and becoming an avant New Orleans funeral march of sorts as "Auld Lang Syne" is quoted by the horns to close it, played as if by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This properly announces the album's final track, "Last Year." This cut has only two lines: "Last year was a hard year, for a very long time/This year is gonna be ours." With three-part harmony accompanied by a piano, it's a gospel song sung by people who have no idea how to or perhaps even know what gospel music is, but they can feel it, and it sums up the entire sprawling message of this record as evidenced by its title: that this new free and wild Akron/Family are, by the very fact of their restlessness, creating music that will resonate for its inspiration and execution.


Formed: 2002 in Brooklyn, NY

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Akron/Family are a Brooklyn, New York-based outfit whose music incorporates everything from post-psychedelic rock to appropriations of world music traditions, avant folk, and even improvisation. Their most notable trademark is their instantly recognizable three-part harmonies. The group's original lineup consisted of vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Seth Olinsky, from Williamsport, Pennsylvania; vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Miles Seaton, from Porterville, California; vocalist/multi-instrumentalist...
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Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, Akron/Family
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