Sweet Sister EP

(Banter Records; 2010)

By Conrad Amenta | 1 April 2010

Raleigh’s Annuals made an impression with the charming and enthusiastic Be He Me (2006), and then lost some of that steam with a self-conscious-sounding jump to the majors on the confusingly unenthusiastic Such Fun (2008). An unfortunate gambit is now set up: their third and presumably forthcoming album will go a long way towards determining how much of their fan base, still running on curiosity generated from their debut, checks in. How much of that rare penetration into indie markets will they be able to maintain? Will the band continue to place a premium on studio gimmickry and indulgence over focused songwriting? Can they even balance the two without sacrificing some central part of their identity?

At least some concentration down the stretch will be paramount if they have any intention of distinguishing themselves from the hundreds of other bands whose debut generates interest before they promptly disappear from the scene because they don’t know what to do next. No small stakes for Annuals—their subterranean series of EPs (of which they now have more than they have albums) imply they either have more material than they know what to do with, or are unwilling to sacrifice or cannibalize some of that material to some greater album’s vision. The group is writing, but they seem incapable of writing towards something.

Their music garners comparisons across the rock-pop grid, everything from Faith No More to Radiohead—which seems to indicate, in equal parts, that the band has as few ideas about the musical community to which they want to belong as they do about what they want their albums to say and sound like. Perhaps it’s that critics and listeners alike simply don’t know what to do with a no-wrong-answers approach to recording. It’s not so much Fiery Furnaces, who, for all of the unlistenable moments they offer, subject their music to a broadly experimental impetus that informs all of their songwriting decisions; the Annuals offer talent without the benefit of a good edit, without a stance or ideology with which a listener can identify or counter-argue.

They’re in the weeds from the start. “Loxtep,” which sounds like some sort of mix between Manu Chao and 311, ill-defines the EP for the way that it refuses to remain defined; “Turncloaking” is ultra-polished rural-pop (read: as aesthetically unfocused as it is stylistically). In fact, the only song that sounds invested is “Flesh and Blood,” a cover perhaps meant to sound quaint and non-committal but which ends up the only song bothering to make clear, declarative statements. “You’re the One I Need” is downright prophetic next to the band’s otherwise casual approach to their own music.

All of which, again, points squarely to their forthcoming third album as make-or-break. They earned some early credibility then secured some financial backing; the time for dicking around and trying to find out what the band should be about is officially over. Here’s hoping Sweet Sister is the sound of a talented group shaking out some superficial songwriting ideas before getting down to it.