As the karmic wheel dictates, for every mystic epiphany, there must, sadly, be a counterbalancing bummer trip. In this case, the particularly depressing tab of brown acid among recent folk-minded releases is Akron/Family’s Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free.
The band’s self-titled debut was one of the highlights of the first wave of freak folk albums, combining vocal harmonies, acoustic guitar, and electronic bleeps in a way that was poignant and catchy. The group’s latest, however, is anything but tuneful. The Brooklyn band (now a trio since guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof headed off to a Buddhist Dharma center) still retains its experimental kitchen-sink approach, but the knack for melody is missing.
The first bad sign is the album cover, which depicts an American flag with a tie-dyed blue and white spiral where the stars should be. The second is album opener “Everyone Is Guilty,” which begins with a white-boy funk groove that would have been right at home in a String Cheese Incident jam. The vocals, shared by all, are nasally and screamed. The jarring tempo and stylistic shifts give the song an unpleasant, schizophrenic vibe. Not even a powerful riff interlude that sounds like the late DJ Screw working over the Beatles’ White Album can redeem the track. Maybe the band is just projecting with that “Everyone Is Guilty” title.
It seemed fresh when Akron/Family first mixed folk with experimental electronic sounds, but the drum machine on “Creatures” just seems stale. When they ask in a monotone, “When we’re gone, will you remember me?” the answer seems to be “unlikely.”
The band uses insect-sound samples at the beginning of “The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen” to give the song a campfire feel, but instead the cricket chirps make a cynical listener think of an unresponsive audience—even though the heartfelt, acoustic piece is one of album’s better songs. Another good number, “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon,” is an example of what the band could create if they concentrated on rocking out. It begins with bucolic flutes and horns before building to a lysergic freaked-out climax.
Alas, the highs are too rare on Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free. “They Will Appear” and “Sun Will Shine (Warmth of the Sunship Version)” are aimless, self-indulgent downers. At least the drowsy, political closer, “Last Year,” strikes an optimistic tone as the band members sing, “Last year was a hard year for such a long time/This year’s gonna be ours.” Given the quality of its prior releases, the band have every reason to be hopeful, but on Set ‘Em Wild, Akron/Family are neo-hippies that the listener hopes will just keep on’ truckin away.