Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Live Review: Akron/Family and Women 5.31.09

What better way to wrap up a five-month stint of cultural immersion in Bolgona, Italy, than by escaping to a tucked-away club outside of town for a concert by two North American bands no Italians have heard of?

Akron/Family and Women put on a blistering double billing at the Locomotiv Club here this weekend. Each band threw its recent album into the fire and cooked it Pittsburgh rare, until the sound and feel from the record turned scalding but stayed super-raw, putting a totally new taste in your mouth.


Women opened up and quickly asserted that this show was as much theirs as Akron’s. Their brief self-titled debut album is a tube of tomato paste that you’ve left in the sun too long—highly condensed, and full of hazmat surprises. It’s rife with twists and turns and feels like a reference book of alternative influences. There’s the neo-naturalism of Grizzly Bear’s and Animal Collective’s old brands of freak-folk, manifested in a willingness to let an acoustic guitar and some co-oped vocals carry a piece, with the help of some trusty reverb (read: the first half of “Group Transport Hall,” featuring Women’s best melody). Women are at times industrial, at other times post-punky—as when their guitarists parlay an interface of two lightly distorted lines into a swirling cacophony à la Television. Often, the grittiness meets a sophisticated rhythmic sensibility that somehow propels the tunes ever forward, rather than halting and jerking them as Battles’ brand of math rock is wont to do.

Now imagine all this played by a band that listens to nothing but Fucked Up and My Bloody Valentine on the tour bus. At least that’s what it sounds like. Hiding from the drizzling rain beneath a tree outside the club after the set, I commented that the show was different from the record. “Yeah,” bassist Michael Wallace laughed. “Really different.” The song structures, even the instrumentation, stayed largely the same. But Women took their multidirectional vision, already steeped in lo-fi, and cranked up the volume to levels that (neighbors be grateful) can’t be reached in the basement. A friend who came with me to the show and who had hardly heard of Women before ended up calling their music “punk” and “hardcore;” meanwhile, I came away intrigued by the dejected, shoegazing quality that lead singer Patrick Flegel attached to his always distant vocals.

Check out this video of Women performing at CMJ last year via


Akron/Family, now a three-piece after the 2007 departure of original member Ryan Vanderhoof, lived up to their reputation as a live powerhouse and one that sounds just as distinct from their recorded selves as Women do. Contrary to Allmusic’s oxymoronic attempts to pigeonhole – apparently “Akron/Family are one of those exasperatingly unknowable bands” but “their music … falls squarely into the freak folk category” – Akron concerts feel like exuberant explorations of the many directions in which their songs can be taken.

If I had to give it a genre, I’d call these New Agers’ style “freak-jam.” Songs like “Everyone Is Guilty,” the opener of impressive new album Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, swung about the spectrum of Akron’s sound. The trio jumped from a jaunty guitar groove to an intense communal chant of “Everyone is guilty” to a percussion-and-pedal section (different band members played a cowbell and a half-drunk water bottle and fiddled with a loop pedal); the tune eventually bloomed into a searing solo section.

The set closed with a simple ballad, sung in three-part harmony to the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The song’s only lyrics were, “Last year was a hard year for such a long time, / This year’s gonna be ours.” Although they did return for an encore of “Crickets,” the acoustic piece was a perfect capstone from this bearded threesome. The lyrics of their songs are effervescently positive and self-affirming, and at its best their music can feel like an unbounded spiritual release, sung in wild chants and deep, imperfect harmonies.

The photograph above is of Women's performance.

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