Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free (Dead Oceans)

Akron/Family lost a member between 2007’s Love is Simple and the new Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free, but being short-handed doesn’t seem to be holding them back. Set ’Em Wild is even more sprawling than anything the band has done before — something of an achievement from an outfit that’s equally comfortable with folksy ditties, tribal shoutalongs and avant-noise experiments.

“Everyone is Guilty” kicks things off with the tightest groove the band has ever recorded, before abruptly giving way to a rapid-fire bridge and a hard-rock riff that disappears almost as soon as it arrives. It’s a joyful mess, a sprawling epic that captures everything that makes Akron/Family special: their boundless creativity and sheer musicianship.

In that sense, it’s an apt opener for an album that eschews easy categorization. The more subdued “River” follows, meandering effortlessly between Americana and Graceland-style globalism — it’s a testament to “Everyone is Guilty” that “River” actually sounds straightforward in comparison, despite its myriad influences. There are recurring touchstones throughout Set ’Em Wild — drum circle percussion, gospel harmonies, classic rock jams, abstract detours — but nothing concrete enough to pin the band down. The delicate finger-picking on “The Alps and their Orange Evergreen” is worlds away from the paranoid freakout of “MBF,” with its squealing guitars and circuit-bending weirdness. Neither of those songs share much with the slinky “Many Ghosts,” either, aside from the general anything-goes attitude.

The sprawl does have its drawbacks. At first blush, Set ’Em Wild doesn’t feel as much like an album as Love is Simple did. The only thing holding the tracks together is the band’s reckless enthusiasm, which isn’t always enough. The album lacks Love is Simple’s careful ebb and flow, too — the band seems to be dashing for every idea in sight, and working out the details later.

Considering it’s a transitional album — their first as a trio, and their first for the fast-growing Dead Oceans label — Set ’Em Wild’s eclecticism is understandable. It’s the sound of Akron/Family working out a new identity, and every experiment provides another possible path for the future. On the album closer, “Last Year,” the band repeats the refrain, “This year is gonna be ours.” They mean it.

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