As long as people believe poverty and authenticity go hand-in-hand, lo-fi will never go out of style. Demand for the holey cardigan stylings of artists like Phil Elvrum, Lou Barlow, and Emperor X seems to peak every couple years, and after last year’s freak(folk)-out, you might expect a brief recession, followed by the reemergence of a hermetic lo-fi denizen like Elvrum with his strangest sonic odyssey yet. But Akron/Family jump the gun with their new self-titled debut LP, drawing on lo-fi’s aesthetic tenets while broadening its instrumental scope.
Lo-fi, yes, but Akron/Family are working with way more than a four-track here: Loads of swampy found-sound texturing belies the complexity of their arrangements. Close-mic’ing and muffled vocals are standard fare, but don’t disregard the triple-tracked guitars, string sections, and frequent choral accompaniment. The album varies tonally without swinging wildly, and the instrumentation– while often dense and effects-laden– is consistent at its core. Ringleaders include guitar, banjo, bass, and vocals (lots of it). This makes for an easy listen; even at 14 tracks and a shade over an hour long, the album seldom drags. But it’s just as easy to extrapolate singularly catchy tracks as it is to digest the album in its totality. Opener “Before and Again” condenses the band’s selling points into a multifarious folk farrago, replete with bucolic acoustic plucks, string swells, chirruping synths, and ambient sounds.
Despite the boundlessness of their instrumentation, Akron/Family maintain remarkable warmth (o, that stock descriptor of lo-fi ingenuity!), playing at restrained volumes that invite close listening. Occasionally they bust out with some noize, like the mushrooming electric gee-tar solo on “Suchness”, but any departure from the band’s typical whisper feels like a wail. Half of the album’s sonic density comes from white noise, but unlike, say, The Glow, pt. II, it’s used for layering, never as a stopgap between songs.
Eight-minute plodder “Italy” issues a steady stream of waking yawns as it squirms to life. The song’s lethargic pace may lead some to hit the snooze button, but wait it out: When the voice declares, “I’m ready,” it’s no joke. Guitars and drums erupt out of their lassitude and hack away at the beat until it no longer exists, while a trumpet brings some melodic semblance to it all.
Try as the band might to weirdify the album, the melodies are irrepressible. Certain songs reveal a jones for back porch folk. “I’ll Be on the Water” is the tread back to shore after a long wet day, happily sunburned. At first uncomfortably pensive, the song grows more comfortable in its bittersweet, lovelorn pose, blossoming from a scratchy murmur into a bonfire jamboree. “Afford” is similarly pastoral: notice the bird chirps amid nylon strings spiraling listlessly in the humid mix.
Every family needs a father, and Akron have Angels of Light frontman Michael Gira, whose production draws on the restless, emotive aspects of the band’s sound and embraces their sprawl. Frustrating for their imperfections, charming for their listlessness, and irresistible for their melodies, Akron/Family are likable for all the wrong reasons. The album is easy to criticize, yet Akron/Family couldn’t/shouldn’t have done anything differently. When a band keep you as close and captive as Akron/Family, dwelling on the shortcomings would be depriving yourself of a compelling, emotionally complex experience.