A lone guitar and feisty lyrics just aren’t enough for folk music these days. Take Akron/Family, a four-piece from Brooklyn suspiciously sequestered under the folk tag. Their Father Time beards and their Young God record label (which also houses freak-folk poster boy Devendra Banhart) certainly suggest the comparisons.
Then the music kicks in.
Their oeuvre feels like teetering on the cliff of madness, and then doing a 180 and venturing into a lush forest full of flowers and unicorns. Like a celebrity chef, Akron/Family understands that contrasts count; Stylus’ William C. Fields heard “songs that blow kisses to dead lovers, followed by fart sounds.”
“Our only structure is two feet to stand on,” says percussionist Dana Janssen from his home in Brooklyn. “Everything else is no-holds-barred.”
What starts as a gentle caress on a nylon string can descend into a banshee wail. Lead singer Ryan Vanderhoof’s forlorn voice will sometimes congregate with the other three, producing a quad of primal yelps usually reserved for an Ice Age cave gathering. Even everyday sounds – grinding gears, squeaking chairs – find residence in the compositions.
“You could say it’s folk by association,” shrugs Janssen, referring to his band’s record label. “The first record has elements of it for sure.”
Sure, Akron/Family’s brand of folk has more in common with the genre’s current, elasticized incarnation than with its nascent definition. Still, the band’s background has roots even Dylan would appreciate: Four lads from small hometowns move to the Big Apple. Rent is high, they work long hours at coffee shops, and make music in their wee time off. Purposefully isolating themselves from the music scene, they create their own with every device they can lay their hands on (very folkish indeed). Each member plays a plethora of instruments, and no one person holds the lead mantle.
Then their music captures the ear of Michael Gira, ex-Swans member and owner of Young God Records. He signs them to the label and produces their first record, released in March 2005. The debut self-titled album – a mix of psychedelic haze and roots-rock clarity – casts wide ripples in indie circles.
Smitten by the quartet, Gira employs them to do another album – Angels of Light and Akron/Family (released in June 2005) – a split CD that’s half Akron and half Gira’s music, with Akron backing. The contrast imprint is the same: The almost yogic stance of “Awake” is followed by the opening thunderous thrash of “Moment.” However, by the end, “Moment” reduces to a campfire chant. Gira’s side of the album, including a faithful rendering of Dylan’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” sweeps the chaos under the rug. Indie mouths foam again with excitement, and the mentor and the band go on tour together.
Despite Gira’s fatherly direction, Janssen insists that Akron/Family never lost their musical freedom.
“It was nice to play someone else’s music and be in that sort of structure,” he says. “It’s kind of like doing a play. It may be the same, but each night it gets better and better.”
Touring presently on their own, Akron/Family disregards setlists. Still, for a band that thrives on doing it their way, their popularity ascends with each outing. Crowds coming to the shows now know the music, and sing-a-longs (with lyrics like “Four legs on the chair/ Three flowers in the vase/ Two seconds until/ One suchness ten thousand things”) are plausible.
“I think it’s great that people come to our shows knowing our songs,” says Janssen. “It’s liberating, and it loosens us up to do what we want in a live setting.”
Even though a single label for Akron/Family is unfair, they at least carry on the 21st-century interpretation of folk, adapting musically in ways that would arouse Darwin.
“So many forms of music – rock, etc. – own rudiments of different genres,” says Janssen. “That’s why folk must be accepting, and it should be open to all elements of inspiration.
“Folk music is the people’s music,” he adds, almost without irony.
[Hunter Pope writes Xpress’ weekly local-music column “Earful.”]
Akron/Family plays the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Friday, Jan. 20, along with Mi and L’au, Wooden Wand & Friends, and Uke “Amos” Phillips featuring Mojo Bammer. 8 p.m. $6. 232-5800.