Down a member to three since their latest outing, Akron/Family is back with their fourth full-length, Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, their first on the Dead Oceans label. Anybody worried that the loss of lead singer Ryan Vanderhoof would derail their beloved freak-rockers can rest easy, Akron/Family is just as weird and wonderful as ever and the new record is remarkably strong, especially considering the circumstances. Just goes to show what a little focus and tenacity can accomplish when you're faced with a potentially show-stopping change. The band have crafted an eleven-song set that is all over the stylistic map, but remains thoroughly enjoyable and somehow cohesive throughout.
Kicking things off is the gloriously bizarre "Everyone Is Guilty," with explosive, group-shouted choruses and fiery guitar riffs in a barely structured, six-minute rocker. Following is the equally great, and more subdued "River," which has been floating around the 'net for a while now. Here, the band settle down, focusing on gripping melody and harmony over muted guitar and gentle percussion, which style appears later in the even more sparse combo of "The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen" and "Set 'Em Free." The opening tracks are, honestly, about as good as Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free gets, but as they are quite exceptional, and the band keeps things thoroughly entertaining throughout, there's no reason to be concerned.
Those looking for the familiar bombast and weirdness should check out the horn-heavy "Gravelly Mountains of the Moon" and the noisy, claustrophobic "MBF," but there's also a great deal of the more subtle and serene production mentioned earlier, like the closing combo of the psychedelic folk tune "Sun Will Shine" and the gospel-esque "Last Year." The sequencing of the album can take some getting used to, as the band goes from complete freak-out to tender ballad and back again within four tracks, but Akron/Family known the way to keep things interesting and surprising, just as we've come to expect and enjoy.
Inspired and inspiring, Set 'Em Wild, Set ' Em Free is truly a better record than it has any right to be, and a promising release from a band that is still moving forward. Whatever they do next, I think we can continue to expect the unexpected, and that's a comforting thought.