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The Death of Genre: Akron/Family’s Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free

December 5, 2009

Over the past weeks in my Eustachian Ruminations columns, I’ve tried my best to give you what I consider the best albums of a crowded 2009 field.  Although there’s a lot of great music that I didn’t get the chance to mention, we’re into December and I’d like to take the next few Saturdays to spotlight what I consider to be the three top albums of the year.  I don’t think that there’s any benefit to sticking some artificial ranking on these albums, they just stand out from the pack and so deserve special recognition.  We’ll begin with the May release from Akron/Family, entitled Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free.

I’ve heard a lot over the last year or so about the death of the album at the hands of the mp3 explosion and the revival of the single.  I’ll tell you up front that I don’t buy into that line of thinking, even though it looks to have quite a bit of support.  My reasoning can be saved for another post at another time, but if I needed an argument as to why the album shouldn’t die, I’d probably lay Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free down on the table and never say a word.  I think that as opposed to the album dying, what I hope what we’re really seeing in popular music is the slow death of genre.

I tried, somewhat clumsily, to make this point earlier in the week when I reported on The Roots jamming with proggers Dirty Projectors.  But perhaps what I should have done is linked to a perpetual stream of SEW,SEF and let the music speak for itself.  I’ve read a lot of reviews that slammed this album for being too out there or not accessible enough, I’ve even seen the term “mess” thrown around.  And I suppose with a more casual listen SEW,SEF could come off as a bit schizoid.  But I think when you really dig into this album, you find music that is truly genre-defying.

The first track, “Everyone Is Guilty”, is a sprawling 5 minute or so jam that compresses a number of time and style shifts into one song.  You go from Afro-beat to prog to classic guitar rock one right after the other, each stylistic change happening much like a movement shift in a classical piece.  The different instruments were obviously meticulously arranged, even down to the background “Ooohs” throughout the song.  It is a song that shouldn’t work at all, yet strangely it does.  And when the song fades into trombone, violin and flute at the end, you realize that a statement has been made while you listened:  These boys could care less about the label you stick on their music.  They are going to follow their muse wherever it takes them, and they’re going to follow it boldly whether they succeed or fail spectacularly.

In case the first track didn’t make a solid enough argument, Akron/Family follows up with a pretty straight up electric folk song, “River,” that is carried by the simple yet beautiful melody and the refrain “You and I and a flame make three” whatever that means.  Again, one might be tempted to write this song off as proof that there’s not a lot of substance here, but listen closer to the whistling in the background during the verse that I bet you didn’t hear the first time around.  Check out the bridge and just let the woodwinds that serve as a counter-point to the bass wash over you.  You don’t know what the song would sound like without these seemingly small flourishes, but let me tell you it wouldn’t be the same song without them.

The third track, “Creatures” is a straight-out electronica jam that could go toe-to-toe with anything on Merriweather Post Pavillion.  The next two tracks, “The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen” and “Set ‘Em Free, Pt. 1” are pretty straightforward folk songs that are both beautiful without being flashy.  This sets the listener up for “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon”, which starts out with two free-flowing flutes, then adds acoustic guitar, trombone and baritone with a heavy dose of minor chords that create a sense of dissonance.  Then, suddenly at about the 2:30 mark, the boys let the electric guitars go and you have a straight up rock song.  Dueling electric guitars give the middle third of the song an Allman Brothers feel in spirit if not in sound.  The final third of the song is a rollicking train ride where the song is always on the verge of utter collapse.  Then the boys bring it back with something akin to a gospel sing-along and the final refrain sung over solo piano:  “Put me in, let me run with the ball.  Ha!”

“Many Ghosts” is basically a hip-hop track, complete with drum machines.  “MBF” is vintage prog rock a-la Yes or even Rush.  “They Will Appear” starts out psychedelic, morphs into anthemic Springsteen-ish rock, then layers an African-influenced guitar riff and chorus over the rock backbeat.  The final two tracks are the simplest and most beautiful.  “Sun Will Shine” uses basically four notes, 8 words, and some feedback to create a song that will bring tears to your eyes.  The album closer “Last Year” is a simple gospel song with vocal and piano that serves as the dénoument to the whole album.  Clocking in at a modest 1:39, this song serves as Akron/Family’s closing argument that the album is definitely not dead:  “Last year was a hard year for such a long time, this year’s gonna be ours.”

I can’t say much more about SEW, SEF except listening to it is truly an experience.  If you stick with it from beginning to end, you’ll be exhausted, but in a good way.  Akron/Family epitomizes what I find most intriguing about indie music these days, which is the breaking down of these synthetic boxes that we call “genre”.  While I understand that labels have their purpose for some listeners, I also believe that we deaden the listening experience by pigeon-holing music into our own preconceived notions of what it should sound like.  The genius of SEW, SEF is it’s capacity to surprise, even after multiple listenings, and the challenge that it presents to the consumer.  It forces you outside of what’s comfortable into an unfamiliar realm where a genre definition has no meaning.  And for my money, popular music as a whole needs many more artists that aren’t afraid to challenge listeners in the way that Akron/Family has on this album.

  1. T. D. permalink
    December 7, 2009 10:43 am

    I just threw this album on the old turntable a few days ago for the first time in a couple months for a ritualistic, “wife is out of the house, turn it up to 11” jam session, and was yet again reminded just how badass it is. Glad it makes your top 3 for the year; it’s definitely one of mine.


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