Folk music has been going crazy since the 1960s, and the expansion of the people's music into unknown areas has driven home the point that the people's music is, well, music people make. Folk songs were just tunes that anyone could learn and play, but it was the self-conscious pop mythologizing of Bob Dylan, The Incredible String Band and others that brought us to the weird state of folk music today. As the songs of music collective and art project Akron/Family demonstrate, today's de-centered folk scene helps artists confront musical history — and not necessarily the history bearded men and women with guitars made alone in their garrets or hung out to dry on their porches. Over the course of a decade, Akron/Family has made powerful, confounding music that plays pop even as it references folk.
For Akron/Family's Seth Olinsky, the possibilities of recording and then piecing together a series of intense communal moments are part of the band's method. "There used to be commercial music, and then there was indie-pop music," Olinksy says. "Maybe the sides were a little more defined. Whatever, I listen to Johnny Mathis Christmas music, but I do think these things are a lot more blurred now. I think we're trying to be artistic, and I'm really interested in digging down and getting deeper into creative expression."
As Olinsky suggests, you can dig deeply into Akron/Family's recordings, which overflow with found sounds, handclaps, unison sing-alongs and free-jazz-style group improvisations. You'll also hear echoes of classic rock drums-and-guitar textures, Neil Young-derived acoustic tunes and Beach Boys harmonies. On last year's full-length S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, the band tightens up their compositions a bit, but it still sounds pretty discursive.
Part of the reason for Shinju TNT's relative cohesiveness seems to come from the band's desire to explore as many avenues as possible before releasing the finished product. They released seven versions of the record by leaking them onto the Internet, but none of the leaked versions is the finished version.
"There was a lot of misinformation that was actually started by us," Olinsky says. "More or less the true story is that, as we were getting ready to release this record — and knowing that it was gonna leak all over the Internet — we somehow managed to convince [record label] Dead Oceans into letting us not send out the official Shinju TNT record to any writers or anyone. We got together with a bunch of friends and made seven different versions of the record — one version was a solo piano version, other ones were just complete, blasting noise."
A two-LP collection of the leaked versions was released last year, but the official record stands as perhaps the band's most accomplished work to date. Gang of Four-style guitar riffs nestle next to sections that sound as if they were performed on toy xylophones, and "So It Goes" has the pop veneer of an outtake from David Bowie's Young Americans. Once again, the band toyed with the press while explaining how the record was written and recorded — there were stories about recording Shinju TNT in an abandoned Detroit train station.
"We'd been working in Detroit with an engineer and producer there named Chris Koltay, who is a big personality and just a killer engineer," says Olinsky. "That's the reason we ended up in Detroit, and he has a studio that's right near the station. So we were always kind of fascinated by it and wanted to capture some kind of quality it had."
Whatever the true origins of Shinju TNT, it continues in the same vein as Akron/Family's previous work. If ever a group made records that sound like something teenagers at a progressive Christian summer camp would perform under the influence of LSD smuggled into powdered eggs, or The Cowsills paying tribute to the neglected influence of musique concrète on California sunshine pop, or maybe even Brian Wilson shell-shocked by hearing an Albert Ayler recording, then it's Akron/Family.
I can't tell much difference between 2005's debut full-length Akron/Family and such later offerings as Meek Warrior and Love Is Simple. On each release, odd little acoustic-folk songs, often in 6/8 or 3/4 time, meander across a sonic landscape that includes creaking chairs, children's poolside shouts and the occasional overt pop-music reference — Meek Warrior's "Gone Beyond" is a dead ringer for the Stones' "Backstreet Girl," while the first record's "Returning, Returning" is Akron/Family's version of Paul Desmond's 1959 "Take Five."
You may hear references to the glazed '90s pop of Pavement and the ominous riffage of King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Hearing Akron/Family's music is like encountering that Christian day camp as classes let out for the afternoon and precocious children contemplate the role of the secular in religious thought.
Olinsky says the current tour of the Southeast finds the band — at this point a trio featuring Miles Seaton and Dana Janssen — winding down the cycle that began with the release of Shinju TNT a year ago. "We have it set up where we have a skeleton we work off of from night to night," he says of the group's live show. "We change it up, depending on our mood and whether it's a reverberant or a dead space. You want to feel like you're not just paying to see a movie — you're in something unique, you're a participant in that moment."
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