North Carolina baroque-rockers are ambitious, but quality comes in patches.
Matthew Horton 2010-09-08
A collection of odds and sods, Count the Rings pulls together Annuals’ assorted US B sides and favourite tracks from 2008 US-only album Such Fun to clear the decks and push all their spare output into Europe in one handy chunk. Until now, 2006's debut Be He Me was our only taste of the impossibly young North Carolina baroque rockers, introducing us to an ambitious if patchy band that nestled comfortably alongside Arcade Fire in the heart-on-sleeve new breed.
If Be He Me was a more cohesive mix, Count the Rings is a necessarily disparate affair, but highs come with greater frequency. Single and opener Eyes in the Darkness shows what Annuals can do, chucking frenetic handclaps, fidgety piano and party horns into a soca stew. It's unfeasibly busy – no great surprise from a bunch of precocious multi-instrumentalists – yet hangs together, a mildly off-kilter rock hit.
Singer, songwriter and goodness knows what else Adam Baker belts each song like Bono on the edge, but occasionally gets lost in the mire. Annuals have no truck with holding back: Springtime buries warm piano flourishes in pounding drums and chants; the glorious The Giving Tree, in tone a meld of Neil Young and Grizzly Bear, is pummelled by drum'n'bass rolls and hip hop scratching; and Loxstep fuses flamenco with proggy synths and a filthy guitar riff. It sounds like Sting fronting Yeasayer. Mind you, so do Yeasayer.
This is all very well – you'll never get bored with Annuals – but sometimes it feels like a cheat. In their impatience, these songs are shortcuts to ecstasy, diving for the big crescendo without a trek through mumbled verses to earn it. Hair Don’t Grow briefly threatens a stripped-back blues, but seconds in it’s lost in a thicket of orchestra and Waitsian beats, and Hot Night Hounds is an over-jammed rush to who knows what. It seems ungrateful to bemoan these myriad treats, but when Annuals reduce the clutter on the earthy, cute pluckings of Hardwood Floor, they seem so much more natural. Chances are they’ll allow a bit more space on their next album proper, and then they’ll have found a winning blend.