If there is one thing Akron/Family are not, it is simple. They are a deceptively talented quartet; expert folk songwriters, but also comfortable in styles ranging from classic rock to 60′s pop, from metal to bluegrass. Their work in the Angels of Light has rightly born them out to be a band of superior musicianship: on Love Is Simple they sound confident and well-practiced in even their most ragged moments. There is an intuitive quality to their music that one rarely hears in bands today; they are able to collectively shift both music and mood with remarkable precision. That they can demonstrate such instinct within the context of the scattershot, wildly unfocused Love Is Simple, is an accomplishment in and of itself. The real trouble is that a band of this talent could be so much better, if only for a little discipline.
Following the effortless sing-along of “Love, Love, Love” that opens the album, is a track called “Ed Is A Portal” — a seven-and-a-half minute mini-suite that switches between electric country stomp, breezy folk, and spare trip-hop without even bothering with transitions. “Pony O.G.” falls apart suddenly, turning into a backward, looping experiment a la the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” And “Lake Song/New Ceremonial Music For Mothers” begins as a Books-like ride beneath the moon, before devolving into three minutes of primal moans and screams.
Not that I have anything against primal screams. But what, seriously, is the point? Why does a great, crooked, country-rock jam like “There’s So Many Colors” have to begin with a minute-and-a-half of the same foolish chant (“There’s so many colors / without the dirty windows”)? That this song is followed by the superb “Crickets” — a cool, front-porch ballad — only deepens the sense that this band is not always putting its best foot forward. And thus, the biggest problem is not that this album is such a mess of styles and voices, but that one gets the feeling that Akron/Family have a beautiful, timeless (read: simple) folk record in them, and that Love Is Simple isn’t it. It’s not that so many of these disparate sections sound bad — on the contrary, they’re generally quite listenable and often feel like excellent mini-songs — but that they seem to willfully distract from a far more worthwhile mantle that Akron/Family are more than capable of taking up.
You will hear few better songs this year than “Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead”: the fragile organ line, easy harmonies, and casually beautiful refrain — “Love is simple” (of course) — are clearly the mark of a great band. That the first track, “Love, Love, Love,” is reprised at the album’s conclusion is testament that the band knows the power of its most clear-eyed work. We will have to wait a little longer, it seems, until moments such as these are no longer the exception, but the rule.