"Indie" is a funny word. Short for "independent," in musical terms, it means nothing more than a band that, for whatever reason, isn't signed to a major record label. Yet the word is thrown around like confetti when describing the style of bands like Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes and Sufjan Stevens. Clearly, there is a growing expectation as to what an independent band is supposed to sound like, which is why new arrival Annuals is such a compelling listen.
Annuals' debut album, Be He Me, is dream pop for the new millennium. There are entrancing chants, weightlessness-inducing string arrangements, and sweeping harmonies. In short, they don't let their obscure label Ace Fu Records limit their musical output.
One can dig deep and find roots in the surf pop of the Beach Boys, the experimental psychedelia of the Flaming Lips, and the progressive avant-garde of Iceland's Sigur Rós. Then, just when the listener thinks he has their sound tied down, the North Carolina sextet will throw a sonic curveball, like with the fifth track, "Chase You Off," whose wistful swooping melody is suddenly interrupted by a grizzly guitar chord and some hard rock howling by songwriter Adam Baker. And just like that, the fresh paint that spells out "indie rock" is smeared into an indecipherable blur.
The funny thing with Annuals, though, is they don't sound like they are trying to say anything profound. Their music is layered and often complex, but not in a pretentious way, and the record gives off the impression that they are just a bunch of friends that love music and are having fun in the studio. Records lacking this characteristic show the most common symptom of "indie-rockitus." Too often, these young artists try so hard to change the world they forget to enjoy themselves. Baker's band will likely never change the world, but their music sure is a blast to listen to. In this respect, Baker, at 20 years of age, is a more mature songwriter than many of his older contemporaries.
From the dash of Caribbean flavor in "The Bull, and the Goat" to the Asian sitar that highlights "Mama," nearly all the bases are covered by Annuals. Listeners looking for the revelatory insight of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst might be disappointed by the careless liberties the band takes with their music, but that would be approaching Be He Me all wrong. The music isn't about elucidation or self-examination; they are one of those bands that try to create a landscape with their songs, and Be He Me is the Bahamas of the musical world. If this comparison seems strange, stop reading now and listen to the final track, "Sway." It will make a true believer out of the most doubtful critics.
The opening of Be He Me fourth track, "Carry Around," has a completely delirious-sounding Baker screaming, "I got magic in my head, magic up my nose, magic coming out my fingers, magic crying out my eyes." As nonsensical as the claim is, his feverish zeal makes it easy to believe him anyway. He shows no barrier of reticence to filter his passions, and neither does the rest of the band.
This record is such a joy to the ear it makes one forget the political and cultural uses music has come to wield today and brings the listener back to a simpler time when songs were meant solely to make people happy. Did such a time ever exist? It doesn't matter, because it's the only world Annuals know. And if nothing else, that's the only reason one needs to listen to this album. It makes people happy.