A discovered cardboard box containing a handmade diorama, scribbled crayon notes, photos, and a cassette sounds like a time capsule created by a 10 year-old, a collection of keepsakes meant to be sequestered away. Instead, it was proof of a new album after weeks of unreturned communications to a record label. Said album was to be titled S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT. Weird. Not only that, but it was written just outside an active volcano in Japan. It was recorded in an abandoned train station. It was accompanied by a cryptic video. Don’t forget that it apparently has the ability to “transcend the internet”. Sound like a sci-fi apocalyptic precursor? No, it’s just the fifth studio release from Portland/New York-based psychedelic, noisy folk outfit Akron/Family — and, weirdness of the release and its surrounding press aside, this fifth album presents some of the band’s finest work.
Pinpointing Akron/Family’s sound on a spectrum of genres is nearly impossible; they’re the type of band where you don’t find progression and perfecting of old methods in new albums, for each record presents new experiments… new boundaries. Intricate noise, sloppy orchestral arrangements, tribal and animalistic beats, ambiance, rootsy folk, pleading vocals, chanting– you name it, they’ve tried it. The albums are thematically as disparate as they are sonically: 2007’s Love is Simple‘s lightness versus 2009’s Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free‘s bleakness provide the perfect juxtaposition. S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT yet again brings something new to the table: triumph and emphatic joy.
Although who or what the titular “Shinju” is remains shrouded in mystery, his/her/its journey is the prominent organizing theme of the album, going from aimlessly adrift to purposeful and optimistic existence. The beginning of the adventure and album is represented by “Silly Bears”, a track born of warbled, tribal beats and a warped, almost patriotic-sounding guitar riff. It develops into an apparent exchange between two bears about honey, definitely channeling an Animal Collective vibe, and builds to a joyous proclamation of “I’ll be there!”, signifying embarking on the open sea of discovery. “Island” and partner track “A AAA O A WAY” indulge in atmospheric, sustained tones, feedback, and reverb-laden vocals for a downtrodden ambiance that could not more starkly contrast the album opener, hinting at disappointments and confusion.
“So It Goes” ends the indecision and the negativity of its preceding tracks by reciting lessons learned (“Away from the place I started so long ago / Out there I found, out in this lovely world / I found so many people just like myself ) and denouncing the concerns of the petty present, mirroring the meaning of the song’s title in its original Vonnegut context. The accompanying music is as carefree, drawing from archetypal classic rock songs with its soulful guitar riffs and background female “oohs” and “ahhs”. The cornerstone of the album and perhaps one of the Family’s strongest in their catalogue– analogous to Set ‘Em Wild‘s “Everyone is Guilty” — “Another Sky” follows. Continuing the acceptance of fate and optimism of “So It Goes”, “Another Sky” has an inescapable, incredibly upbeat, somewhat Orient-indebted noisy melody, a true embodiment of the human spirit. Quipping “Can’t deny the fear that grows of being swallowed whole/We will row to sunny shores and start again,” the song is an epic proclamation of the promise of tomorrow, and its mid-song breakdown to handclaps and mass vocals is nothing less than inspirational. From there, life is good for Shinju TNT. “Cast a Net” plays like a lazy, summer day with its sugary, cooing harmonies and slide guitar.
The thematic consistency does not lend itself to sonic monotony, making every song distinct and intriguing in its own right. Following a brief ambient noise interlude, “Fuji I (Global Dub)” and “Fuji II (Single Pane)” epitomize this notion. The first playfully combines Asiatic influences (undoubtedly picked up while writing in Japan) with soulful guitar, African drumming, and boozy gang vocals. The second tries a dose of strings and haphazard horns with their new influence, adding together to a dreamscape of sound and a snoozy vocal melody. Concerning their seemingly endless expansion of sonic limits, the band most accurately describes what they are doing with the chant on “Fuji I”, yelling, “We will play with the universe all day.”
It’s ironic that on their most mature, cohesive outing to date, “Light Emerges” would contain the lyrics “Let’s not grow up, let’s just go home”, when, in fact, that is the exact opposite of what Akron/Family have done here. A crayon-scribbled tracklist and enigmatic release tactics cannot detract from the sheer maturity and beauty of this album, one that is anything but a return home to their previous material. Second self-titled albums are always interesting decisions, but The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT truly does function as a rebirth, a re-debut of a band that blatantly refuses to contain their creativity and innovation.