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Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT Ben Graham , April 20th, 2011 07:50

I’ll be honest; it’s taken me a while, and quite a few listens, to really enjoy this album. There was that title to get past, for a start. Maybe, as some have suggested, it’s actually a piss-take of lengthy, lumbering and pretentious album titles, and certainly the press release is at pains to stress that no-one around the band has a clue as to what it means, while the band themselves are, of course, above having to explain anything to anyone. But the suggestion that it’s just a wilfully meaningless in-joke just makes it all the more annoying. I’m prepared to stand for a fair amount of pretension; what I can’t be doing with is half-assed goofing off that comes on as clever when it really doesn’t mean anything.

Then there’s the opening track, which I note with sinking heart is called ‘Silly Bears’. The nursery-rhyme lyric concerns two bears discussing the provenance of some honey, which apparently comes from deep in the ancient forest. I’m usually pretty allergic to this kind of thing: faux-naïve “wide-eyed wonder”, delivered in a high, breathless voice with lots of joyful joining-in on the chorus, as though rock & roll were a clean-limbed boy scout jamboree in Pooh Corner. It’s the speciality of bands like Flaming Lips and Animal Collective, with whom this album bears much kinship. But fortunately, in this case the music is muscular and unhinged enough to support such a potentially twee conceit, as tribal chants and beats, accompanied by gnarly bagpipe guitars, give way to a rapid skipping song, wrapped up in a roaring rush of sound that’s aggressive enough to satisfy even a thistle-eating Eeyore like me.

Things pick up from here on in, anyway. Where the previous track was over-excited and crammed to bursting, ‘Island’ is all calm and empty spaces, and is a thing of some beauty, a beach fire lullaby-lament that climaxes in soaring Hawaiian guitars. ‘A AAA O A Way’ shifts from chanting vowels accompanied by what sounds like some virtuoso fax machine playing to a brief dubby blues that itself leads into ‘So It Goes’, where the fat fuzz guitars and a combination of wilful eclecticism and twisted pop sensibility bring to mind Super Furry Animals. There’s also something of SFA in the bruised innocence of the vocals, musing wistfully on fate and coincidence and, in character and tone, hovering on the childlike/childish faultline that’s the territory of characteristically American Peter Pan types like Jonathan Richman and Pee-Wee Herman.

‘Another Sky’ returns to the maximalist skipping song sound of the opening number, with layers of loud guitars (mixing a mbanqanga, or South African township feel, with Stuart Adamson’s patented Big Country/ Skids Celtic hum and screech), tapping percussion, chanted backing vocals and a wordy use of cyclical folk melodies that, oddly, is as much reminiscent of Vampire Weekend as of Animal Collective. This strain of mutant pop is even more evident on the childhood reminiscences of ‘Light Emerges’ which wraps electric guitar entrails around clapping electronic percussion and, when the climactic harmonies kick in, arrives at a previously unimagined meeting-point between Brian Wilson at his most whacked-out and Malcolm McLaren at his inspired magpie best. Yet for all the dizzying experimentation and hybridisation on show, sometimes the album works best when things are kept simple. The dreamy fishing song ‘Cast A Net’ is a definite highlight, floating gorgeously and effortlessly through a star-dappled midnight sky, above an ocean lying still at the end of the world.

The album’s second half is dominated by a linked suite of songs, beginning with the cod-oriental heavy metal of ‘Fuji I (Global Dub)'; like Black Sabbath playing the theme from The Water Margin, or a track by Japanese psych-rock-folk legends Ghost. ‘Say What You Want To’ dances through formal fragments, coiling round a simple, repetitive melodic phrase until a wayward, untethered guitar solo springs forth. The fragile and understated ‘Fuji II (Single Pane)’ bleeds into ‘Canopy’, another gentle piece that’s part Mercury Rev, part Martin Denny exotica, and the album ends with the South Sea Hymnal ‘Creator’: an imaginary Christmas song from the land where Santa is still a peyote-conjured shaman figure, and the mysteries of birth, death and living hang closer to the ripe old earth.

Imagine if those one-time charity shop staples, The Waikiki Beach Boys, really lived up to their name and delivered a cracked, Hawaiian version of Smile. Imagine if some isolated Indonesian Cargo cult found an entire Pro-Tools equipped portastudio inside one of the crates dropped by a passing plane and proceeded to layer all kinds of electronic noise and distortion onto their traditional songs. Imagine if Akron/Family hadn’t given this album such a goddamned stupid title. Really, it would’ve made things so much better for everybody.

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