Love songs are ubiquitous, understandably so. It’s not that difficult to craft a good one, and there are a variety of self-pitying directions it can travel in: serenading (see, “Sea of Love”), metaphoric (“Bizarre Love Triangle”), pedophilic (“Playground Love”), futuristic (“Digital Love”), educational (“Can’t Buy Me Love”), and the ever-entertaining salaciously tormented (“Love Hurts”). One thing is for sure, however, “Love is Simple” — the name of the latest release by Akron/Family — is not a common refrain. Then again, Akron/Family does not make common music.
Genre is a difficult question for this Brooklyn outfit, and each of their four full-length albums presents so much to the listener that it does not appear the band will be settling down with age. Mostly due to their appearance on Young God Records, the abandoned home of Devendra Banhardt, indie folk’s fuzzy psychedelic messiah, Akron/Family was shepherded into the “experimental freak folk” category upon the release of their eponymous 2005 debut. Even that amorphous clique, however, does not do them justice.
On the stellar “Akron/Family,” they delivered a sundry sampling of ballads, whispers and screams. Album opener “Before and Again” introduced a weighted groan and frail falsetto gliding smoothly over a simple guitar/synth combo; “Running, Returning” maintained a galloping pace, supported by subtle ba-ba beats; and “Sorrow Boy” was a mournful meditation, featuring a gorgeous interplay between synthesized strings and lead vocalist Ryan Vanderhoof’s contemplative tenor. The debut was successful in its presentation of the band’s many capabilities, and their two subsequent releases, 2005’s “Akron/Family & Angels of Light” and especially 2006’s “Meek Warrior,” have proved their strength and artfulness. Yet what they do still remains a bit of a mystery — their collective productions are more a meandering anthology than a realized vision.
Into this diverse milieu enters “Love is Simple,” and, for the first time in A/F’s prodigious two-year history, they present something cohesive. Of course, consistency in style would be asking for too much, but the message is clear: There is a lot of love to go around, and everyone should get involved! It’s kind of like a cappella at Yale.
The album opens with the gentle “Love, Love, Love (Everyone)” on which Vanderhoof preaches, “Go out and love, love, love everyone.” Sure, the piece doesn’t carry much depth, either lyrically or instrumentally, but the delicate vocals are fresh and smooth. The languid “Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead” continues the love motif with the easily-palatable advice: “Don’t be afraid/ It’s only love.” Again, it’s not the words themselves that enrich the song, but the soft caramel harmonies created by the four band members, all of whom donate their honeyed vocals to the album. On the reprise of “Love, Love, Love,” which closes the album, we are presented with a fuller, more passionate sound, and it seems that Akron/Family has learned a thing or two along their 56-minute journey.
Though they grow, “Love is Simple” cannot be attributed to growing pains — after three full-length albums, Akron/Family should no longer be going through its awkward preteen years. But that doesn’t mean the album can’t grow on you. With each additional listen, the instrumentals sink deeper and the vocal lines — harmonies, chirping, yipping, even squealing — grow lush. There are a handful of screwballs, both good and bad, amid the album’s meditative moments (the fervent “I’ve Got Some Friends” and the noisy Irish drinking song, “Of All the Things”), but they just go to prove that Akron/Family are happy in the midst of the indecision they currently embody. They’re still having fun treading genre boundaries (and they’re getting pretty good at it), so there’s not much need to chart a straight course just yet.