WTF Rock

Tough to say what makes Annuals so damn intriguing

North Carolina's Annuals are a musical sleight of hand, an elaborate feat carrying a wealth of wonderful implications. The band is an inventive compromise to the trend of large-scale indie rock ensembles — live, they're an experienced six-piece, but Annuals' debut, Be He Me, was written and recorded almost exclusively by 20-year-old Adam Baker. The album binds opalescent layers of guitar, kitchen-sink percussion, and buoyant vocal harmonies with bubbly electronic production and a game plan that's at once sprawling and cohesive. Even while veering into psychedelic abstraction and the occasional screamadelic breakdown, it remains warm and sanguine, clinging to the sweet side of melody. Deep listening suggests that there's a lot more going on with the music than a typical rock 'n' roll fantasy.

“Back when I was still working on the record,” Baker says before a recent gig in Boston, “I would make these little stories in my head that would go along with every single part. Like this guitar track looked like this person, this bass track looked like a big, fat ogre that was gonna attack the snare track. It was really fun, and my favorite part about the record, because I'm the only one that really knows the true story.”

Dragging on a cigarette, voice thick with a tour-bred sickness, Baker speaks like he's wading through his frenzied imagination. At times he's unable to navigate around contradiction or repetition.

The true story — that was wrong of me to say,” he corrects. “There is no true story. It's whatever people wanna get out of it. Who the fuck am I to tell them what a song is?”

Still, he's the auteur, the budding sonic wizard who spent 20-hour stretches alone in the studio pitting poppy piano versus swelling strings and hazy samples to yield a wild-eyed epic of an album.

“I actually had a lot of problems while working on the record, being like, 'Wait a minute, this is a bit too fucking heavy,'” Baker says. “I'm very maniacal about recording, because I keep going and going and going. I just like really big sounds, which you can probably tell. Maybe it's just me, but I have to put some sort of visual to every song I hear, give it some sort of living, breathing entity that I really enjoy working with. It's like playing god in a way, in a very small scale.” He stops and considers his words. “Wait, I shouldn't have said that.”

Illuminating Baker's conversational unease are certain apparent themes that arise from Be He Me. Song titles like “Brother,” “Mama,” and “Father” hint at familial nostalgia, but the album feels like Baker and crew are pulling away from their youth while still embracing it. The resulting tension crackles with an almost naive electricity. And from Baker's impressionist lyrics emerge a sense of hope to avert some inevitable tragedy.

“Hell yeah, man, of course I'm anxious about dying,” he says. “Aren't you? A lot of the ways I use death in my writing is like the bitter and the sweet aspect of life. You can't enjoy your life if you think you're gonna live forever.”

From there Baker settles on a nugget of certainty, one that gives Annuals' odd, otherworldly music a very comforting context: “I definitely wanted to convey for the listener to relax, that everything's OK. Because either way, you're not dead yet, so you're winning.”

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