Frelen Mas: Be He Me B-Sides

(Ace Fu; 2007)

By Conrad Amenta | 30 December 2007

Mark's review of the Annuals' full length Be He Me (2006) is both a convincing argument for affectation's contribution and a necessary refresher course on the patchwork tapestry of the issue of political responsibility vis-à-vis that oh-so-tremulous well of the liberal guilt complex, to which indie returns again and again. My review shouldn't be considered a companion piece to his. Rather, consider this a self-response to my long-ago trashing of Mew's And the Glass Handed Kites (2006), for which a pedagogy of technique clamped down overwrought sincerity to the degree that one was less inclined to notice whiz-bang effects or totemic performance gestures than ignore them for their surfeit. A partner piece because, for the most part, the Annual's newest EP comes from the same place -- the exposed core of singer Adam Baker's unembarrassed histrionics -- while underpinning a hop-scotch take on genre, technicality and instrumentation. I would also like to take this opportunity to add my voice to a chorus declaring that I'm from Barcelona are fucking terrible.

Comparisons have run from the indie (Broken Social Scene, Animal Collective, Arcade Fire) to the canonical indie (Replacements) to the "what the fuck, really?" (Yes, U2) and each comparison makes a limited sort of sense. And to the list I'll add Mew, a band with which the Annuals share a healthy dose of melodrama and performance. But comparisons are less useful than contrasts; "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is the most loaded of the songs here, is mechanized by its end in what must, in type, sound like the worst idea imaginable: adding electronics to gospel. These are the playgrounds of camp, of kitsch, of the preemptive excuse. If the Annuals were not completely dead serious about it all, then it'd amount to little more than the elevation of a cultural mirror for the purposes of revealing back to you your ugly-ass assumptions. But, however paradoxically, this kind of flippancy is performed less for the sake of its performance than as a thoughtful elucidation of the song's structure and inherent melodiousness. Such is the song's familiarity that it's often forgotten what a sweet and instantly accessible song it once was; steps to recovery of that buried foundation are infinitely more valuable than the stripping of meager remains.

Stranger still is the barroom burlesque of "River Run," following counter-intuitively from the intentional bluster of grand opener "Nah Keseyi," which plays like Sigur Rós sped up for the severed attention span. It, like most of the songs here, is transformed by its end, in this case into a chugging anathema of the exuberance with which the song opened. No less intentionally alienating, though, than the sudden adolescent outburst of screams that tear the idyllic sheen of "Misty Coy," held at arm's length only to resurface at the end of "Ease My Mind." Mark was right to compare catharses; bands like Arcade Fire line shouts like soldiers across the front. The Annuals render images of stewing repressions, bubbling and gasping for breath beneath ice.

It's a question of control, which the Annuals display not only in the way they intentionally, methodically, swerve the alleys between genres, and the pitch and level of dynamics, but also in the careful consideration of the way these sounds are laid to tape. "Sewn to Kites" and "Such a Mess" are the EP's production showcases, layering Reznorian atmosphere and rhythm-heavy electronics over a biosphere thankfully clear of Trent's correlatively poisonous lyrics. If Reznor is the Ego's swirling core, the redundant self-portrait made relevant only by the technique with which it was rendered, then Baker is the Id Reznor so woefully mediates, and the Annuals' music the pleasure he denies himself. That it happens to be immaculately produced gives it legs for balance, keeping the Frelen Mas EP from self-destructing under the demands of a cult of personality.

The Dashboard Confessional application during the title track shouldn't be as puzzling as it is, and may be a simple case of inescapable aesthetics -- with a voice such as Baker's, it's difficult not to sound like contemporaries of a more mockably emo inclination. The song also repeats Baker's tendency to disorder his own songs with samples, in this case the dings of bicycle bells. It's less a step backward than a stagnation to see a band so resourceful, led by a front man so charismatic, lean so heavily on studio technique and pastiche. Oh, but for that affectation; the Annuals is Baker's entreaty, simply but expertly backed by performance and production alike, rendered with cast iron purposefulness for all its vulnerability. There's a lot of material here to consider for an eight song EP, so much so that one wishes another couple songs had been appended so that Frelen Mas might receive the consideration of a full album, the reflection that something this provocative, and yet so pop, really deserves.