3.5 out of 5 stars
Be He Me, Annuals’ 2006 debut, brimmed with climactic, genre-smashing songs that never shied away from the weird. It established the band’s proclivity for writing songs that are equal parts catchy and cacophonous, a masterfully constructed balancing act that impressed critics and casual fans alike. At first blush, Such Fun seems to eschew the experimentation that made Be He Me a remarkable album. After all, the songs are undoubtedly more accessible than those found on its predecessor and certainly more one-dimensional. But after a while it becomes clear this Carolinian sextet, while more focused in their songwriting, have not lost the gumption to tinker with genre and form, crafting an album that combines pop sensibilities with an overarching refusal to be confined in a single musical realm.
Album opener and first single “Confessor” might be the biggest surprise of all. It’s a radio-ready, string-infused pop song that is squarely situated in adult-alternative territory — unfamiliar locale for the indie-minded band. Despite the departure, it’s a solid song and, strangely, the band sounds at home in this foreign territory. Perhaps this is what makes Such Fun such a dynamic album. Annuals display their gift for gathering manifold influences and piecing them together solely on the band’s terms. Superficially, each song sounds completely divergent, sometimes to the point of sounding like a different band entirely. But there is always that specific, altogether “Annuals sound” lying at the heart of each track that effectively holds the album together.
Such Fun is filled with moments that showcase vocalist Adam Baker’s gift for melody. In “Springtime,” a sanguine piano carries Baker’s boyish voice through a musical landscape that accurately reflects the title. The song also typifies the band’s penchant for writing songs that progressively build, as the relaxed mix of voice and piano escalates into a pounding, drum-and-distortion climax. “Hardwood Floor” begins with acoustic guitar and a fragile Baker melody before exotic percussion and a faux-African chant take over. The band even attempts bluegrass with “Dawn the Mountain,” a song featuring fiddles and pastoral guitar. Annuals continue the bucolic vibe with the next track, “Always Do,” in which a lap steel guitar helps liven up an otherwise run-of-the-mill ode.
Clearly, Annuals don’t mind sacrificing cohesion for diversity. Although it typically pays off for the band, sometimes the sacrifice can be distracting. Occasionally, Such Fun adopts the regrettable sound of a band suddenly confronted with a big studio budget attempting to jam as many ideas as they can into a record. “Talking” is mediocre pop-punk that sounds decidedly out-of-place on the album. “Blue Ridge” is a forced lullaby that includes sappy lyrics like “The sun is coming up, here I am again” and “Pulling songs from the lungs of the lark.”
To the band’s credit, their misses are still surprisingly listenable. Annuals have a redeeming quality about them where even their biggest missteps retain the standard inviting pull that appears in all of their work. Accordingly, Such Fun is an album full of contradictions — focused and scatter-brained, mature and developing. It captures a band coming to terms with an influx of ideas, on the cusp of cementing their distinct sound. While the album may not be the expected follow-up to Be He Me, for Annuals, it just might be the necessary one.