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It’s Not That Simple

By Josh Potter

Akron/Family

Set ’em Wild, Set ’em Free (Dead Oceans)

Halfway through their new album Set ’em Wild, Set ’em Free (due May 5), Akron/Family spend eight minutes delineating the trajectory of their career. The song is “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon” and the opening notes trickle up from the hermetic folk chamber from which the band’s music first emerged. Swirling brass and woodwinds introduce Seth Olinsky’s guitar and unadorned voice. The melody is characteristically oblique. Then, without warning, a wall of drums and guitar kicks you in the chest.

Four albums after their indie debutante ball, the band have evolved into an entirely new animal. It’s become increasingly common for groups of their ilk to outgrow the splash-down hype and mature in the risk-friendly outer provinces of the jam-band scene (Apollo Sunshine, My Morning Jacket), but Akron/Family might be the best example. The result is a sound that comes close to unclassifiable. If you listened to opener “Everyone Is Guilty” blind, the crisp funk groove and meaty riff-rock probably would point your best guess in the opposite direction.

The literate lyrics, clattering populism, and freak-folk freakouts are still there, but, after the band’s freak-flag-waving 2007 release Love Is Simple, they’ve put all their ideas on the table. Olinsky’s guitar work is masterly, jumping from yearning blues riffs to sunny afro-pop in a matter of moments. “Creatures” is a fuzzy, subterranean electro vamp, and “MBF” takes an angular page from the Deerhoof playbook. Whereas once the band dabbled in screechy free jazz a la Pharaoh Sanders, they’ve hewn their noisier moments into massively climactic balls of sound with horns, harmonicas, guitars, electronics and percussion sticking out every which way and no single instrument hogging the face-melt.

While Love Is Simple was a bold, spiritual proclamation that yanked the willing into the tribe and drove the callous deeper into their musty dens, Set ’em Wild practices more than it preaches. The songs still invite manic participation and resolve in shout-along codas, but this time they’re a bit more cryptic: “You and I and a flame makes three,” “Up, down, down/Down, down, down.”

The album’s final assertion that “Last year was a hard year for such a long time/This year is gonna be ours” is both its strongest and most challenging. It’s a fair assessment of 2008, but the projection seems at first naïve. Rather than blind faith, though, this could be an ambitious mantra for the new, simple America. Plato said that social movements happen first in music, and if you consider the collapse of American economic hubris, the music industry was the first to go. While we were busy stroking our 401ks, musicians took to the road, hawked their wares for cheap (or free), and started touring again. In so doing, musicians like Akron/Family are heralding in an era of joyful ends through humble means. With Set ’em Wild, the yes-wave is cresting.

Extra Golden

Thank You Very Quickly (Thrill Jockey)

What started as a sort of experimental intercontinental musical collaboration has settled into a tight quartet. With their third album, Americans Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff, and Kenyans Onyango Wuod Omari and Onyango Jagwasi, spring forth with powerfully interlocked grooves. The opener, “Gimakiny Akia,” sports some tonal relationships to the Grateful Dead (in particular, the guitar and bass), but has a wallop that’s way beyond the reach of those aging San Franciscans (and would have been so in their alive prime). The mu sic’s rhythmic tapestry has an exotic bearing to it, an allure that is amplified by lyrics being sung primarily by the African half of the band, in their native tongue. The few times when English takes center stage, the mood falters. This is the sound of four sympathetically matched musicians playing together with minimal overdubs. They captured the intensity of playing live, and remarkably did so in a makeshift studio set up in a hallway and laundry room in the guitarist’s parents’ house.

—David Greenberger

The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love (Capitol)

For a band who made their mark mining the antiquated and odd for folk-pop gold, the Decemberists as we once knew them all but disappeared into the silt on their last album (and major label debut) The Crane Wife. That album found the group tied up in song cycles, folk tales, and 10-minute opuses that not-so-loosely resembled turn-of-the-’70s prog-rock. From Fairport Convention to Jethro Tull in four albums—what a career arc. But Colin Meloy and his band have never shied away from the opus; each of their first three full-length releases included at least one song that topped nine minutes. So why is The Hazards of Love so daunting to even longtime fans? Perhaps because, for the first time, the hallmarks of musical theater are on full display: guest vo calists, recurring musical motifs, an overarching story that “connects” the album’s 55-minute run. But those are all of the things that make Hazards the most Decemberists-y of the band’s releases. It’s Meloy at the apex of his geekiness, which should make it more appealing, particularly to those who stuck with the group through their many experiments. What knee-jerk armchair critics have missed is the gaggle of great tunes here: Storytelling aside, the hooks on “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” and “The Rake’s Song” are not to be ignored. Nor is the vocal performance of Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, who damn near steals the show in her role as the forest queen. (Yes, there’s a forest queen.) Unchecked ambition has the capacity to produce great art. The Hazards of Love may not be worthy of such a lofty tag, but listen again: It’s a great Decemberists album.

—John Brodeur


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