Akron/Family - "River" (Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free)
Perhaps it is due to our country’s evangelical roots or our monarchic origins or maybe the Western conception of a single truth, but we live in a culture that has an incredibly difficult time conceptualizing bottom-up organization. In other words, it is a common thought that groups of people always need a leader to look toward for guidance. Bands are conceived of no differently; the narratives always prize a charismatic lead singer or quirky, principal songwriter over the other members. Thing is, when free of those other members, it’s often obvious that while perhaps that songwriter brought a particular something to the group, what really drove the band – what really drives all bands – are the dynamic interactions between the members of the group. Look at Pavement; since they’ve dissolved, not one of the individual members have ever made anything that even approaches how fun or interesting the group was. The interactions matter and those interactions work to create something that supersedes the individuals. It is perhaps how Eastern mysticism or spiritual experience creeps in to the way many musicians discuss this process because bottom-up organization can feel spooky.
Akron/Family’s latest album Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free brings these ideas to mind due to the departure of original member Ryan Vanderhoof. After the completion of the last album Love is Simple in 2007, Vanderhoof left to attend a Buddhist meditation center in Ann Arbor, leaving Akron/Family a three-piece. This new formation, and the changing relationships, radically altered the way that the band approached their music. In an interview with Aquarium Drunkard, Seth Olinsky noted how there was a kind of non-formulaic formula, let’s call it a methodology, for when they were a four-piece, a methodology that became disrupted with Vanderhoof’s departure.
While Set ‘Em Wild certainly sounds like Akron/Family, it is unquestionably looser, constantly morphing as before, but less poppy, more classic rock, with small flairs (like the G.E. Smith and the SNL Band-esque ending to “Sun Will Shine”). There’s a real reason for this, and it isn’t that Vanderhoof was the member that brought a pop sensibility to the group. Rather, when you disrupt a group, when you break up a system of relations, you cause chaotic motion. Until the new relationships can sort themselves out, the tumult really drives how the music is made. Think of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. As the family’s divorce progresses, the actions of the members become more erratic and more unsure, loosed as they are from that familiar, familial anchor – behavior that only begins to slightly subside toward the end of the film, as they slowly become accustom to the new configuration.
The process Olinsky describes for Set ‘Em Wild is identical:
"All of the sudden here was this freedom, we felt like we’d developed this formula for Love is Simple and then we were thrust in this chaos of not having a formula. So it felt like we were dealing with a lot more options, so in a lot of ways, by the time we got to the actual recording, we had loads and loads of ideas, like we had a script for a ten hour film and we were supposed to go in and make a hour-and-a-half long one.
We had all these songs and all these ideas and all these things we wanted to explore and we showed up at all these different studios we were planning on recording at with a crazy amount of ideas and possibilities and it was a little bit chaotic. So we just decided to start and go and see what happens. About halfway through the recording process certain songs seemed to take shape and life and fit together. A story, or an abstract of a narrative emerged from all these things we had laid down on the table. It was an exciting time because we’d gone in, it was a little while of trying all these different things. What emerged was the record."
His description is quite elegant because it underscores how Set ‘Em Wild really is a property of these novel relations, as the members fumble around trying to figure out the new dynamic. ‘Emergence’ is really just a way of saying the interdependencies in a group are what really drive the system, and the stumbling beauty of the album presages what might happen when they are finally acclimated to the new arrangement.
As it stands though, it’s the faltering steps and the general uncertainty of direction that mark Set ‘Em Wild. The individual songs are lovely, but as a single entity, it’s somewhat incoherent. Then again, a majority of artists think of the album form more as a document of whatever songs were composed in a given period of time, rather than as a larger piece of work. Set ‘Em Wild, more so than many albums like this, at least has the quasi-coherence of forming out of the above-mentioned process, and if anything, that makes it more interesting than just a collection a songs.