As a rule, Akron/Family are a band best kept in a state of flux. Since their self-titled debut in 2005, the Brooklyn foursome have demonstrated an affable fusion of earthy psychedelia, tape-splice sleight of hand and their distinct brand of communal rock. For all their eccentricities, though, the group was dealt what seemed to be a crippling blow to their stability when Ryan Vanderhoof, one of the band’s core songwriters, parted ways shortly before their third record, Love Is Simple, in 2007.
Left to tour behind the album short-handed, Akron/Family compensated by joining with North Carolina free-folk troupe Megafaun, making for an elaborate seven-member show. While that free-for-all spirit served the music well for its time, how to move forward as a trio remained a looming question-not only how to translate their sprawling folk to a live setting, but what direction to take with any fresh material.
“When Ryan pulled out, we were forced to reinvent ourselves,” says singer Seth Olinsky. “We’ve had to go back to the drawing board a lot.” Oddly enough, that meant recalling the band’s early days as an after-hours project, when spending sleepless nights in their rehearsal space or scoring sporadic gigs at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn was making progress. “The stage was hardly even big enough for us all to stand, so we had to huddle together, which made us learn a lot about making these delicate sounds,” says Olinsky. “I think we’ve had to revisit that spirit way back at the beginning.”
The result is Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, an uninhibited ode to Akron/Family’s former self, but one couched in a free-form groove that-even apart from the cover art of a tie-dye stained U.S. flag-recalls ‘60s and ‘70s American album rock. A reckless mood-setter, opener “Everyone is Guilty” flares up with a sharp, revolving drum beat against an elastic bass line before settling underneath an all-hands-on-deck vocal rush. Though immediately evocative of Love Is Simple‘s standout, “Ed Is a Portal,” for its breakneck tempo shifts and unabashed enthusiasm, the track, like so much of Set ‘Em Wild, is more pointed in its purpose.
“There’s this newfound, uncovered sensibility about rhythm,” says Olinsky. “In general, there’s this unspoken spirit that nothing’s off-limits… But we had to find a meeting point between wanting some sort of thread or color that runs through the album, and also our tendency to be schizophrenic and go in a million directions-to marry those two ideas somehow.”
Their recent shift to label Dead Oceans played a major factor in determining that sound, as it freed the trio up, for the first time, to oversee the record’s production all on their own. That meant longer bouts in the studio, as well as breathing room to allow for last-minute inspirations. The album’s closing track, “Last Year”-a fittingly relaxed coda to one exuberant and multifaceted record-was just such a happy accident.
“We’d just finished recording the song before it, ‘The Sun Will Shine,’ and I had this idea,” says Olinsky. “So I ran over to the piano and wrote it out and we recorded it that day-one of those spontaneous moments that just happened.”
Stripped down to a bare piano chord progression for the album’s shortest track, the band belts out in unison, “Last year was a hard year for such a long time/ This year is going to be ours.”
For crafting such a generous, gorgeous record, a little appreciation to cheer them towards better times is something we would gladly give.