Experimental psychedelic folk band Akron/Family have consistently released pretty good music over the past decade, but perhaps their finest moment came in collaboration with another band’s finest moment, that band being Michael Gira’s post/pre-Swans collective Angels Of Light. Since 2005’s excellent, self-titled collaborative LP between Akron/Family and Angels Of Light, however, Gira has reunited Swans and Akron/Family has become noticeably less dark.
After Swans’ mammoth The Seer dropped last year, it seems as though everyone, from bands who have collaborated with Swans, like Low, to bands who you would never associate with Swans, like The Knife, have ventured into Swans-like territory of terrifying ambient noise in conjunction with non-standard pop track lengths. You’d expect the same from Akron/Family.
While The Seer has become a point of reference for many of these artists, Akron/Family’s new record, Sub Verses, while certainly containing some Swans-like songs, is at its best when it continues further down their light, psychedelic pop path, even delving into Afropop at times. But while their stylistic shift towards pop works, on their discordant tracks, you wish they wouldn’t have half-assed the darkness.
While the tracks that try to be dark disappoint because of their self-conscious Swans comparisons, they often work as indie pop tracks. Sporting a riff eerily similar to Feist’s The Bad In Each Other, opener No-Room is an intriguing track, one whose drum beats circle but eventually lead to an a capella vocal loop and reverb-laden midsection. “We held fast and we held strong,” sing band members Dana Janssen, Seth Olinsky, and Miles Seaton in unison. They might as well be referring to their inability to stray from their inevitable psych-pop path.
Elsewhere, second track Way Up starts like it’s in the middle of a track from The Seer, with its heavy riffage, but immediately transforms into something sounding like Feels-era Animal Collective, with its harmonies, Avey Tare-like vocals, and off-beat drums. The same thing happens with Sand Talk, if you replace the no wave of Swans with the hardcore of, say, Converge. However, while good, none of these tracks are particularly new or transcendent. Then again, while Akron/Family have always been good artists, they’ve never been particularly innovative.
When Akron/Family don’t promise or tease Swans-like gleeful nadirs, however, they succeed tremendously, like on excellent Afro-indie-pop track Until The Morning. Think a more psychedelic Vampire Weekend. Or Local Natives. Either way, Until The Morning is not weird nor brooding but rather surprisingly relaxing with just the right amount of sunny melancholy. Penultimate track When I Was Young is a doo wop-laden noise ballad that sounds like a more cacophonous Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It’s a song that effectively combines an old, popular sound with a newer, underground sound. Closer Samurai, a Hawaiian guitar-laden, Antlers-like track, continues in the tradition of Until The Morning, pacifying the listener. In context of the album, however, the listener doesn’t need any respite by the end. Sub Verses may be genre hopping, but it’s not a particularly challenging listen as compared to its predecessors, albums that were both challenging and fun.
Overall, Akron/Family seems to have become a band whose pretentious promises of blogger-level genre inventions, such as the ridiculously-named “Lynchian doo-wop”, overshadow their songs, songs that cannot evade contemporary indie band comparison no matter their quality. Listening to Sub Verses makes you realize that very few bands can be Swans, but fewer should even try.