Saturday, September 7, 2013

Album Review: Annuals - Time Stamp

Album Rating: A
As a North Carolina native, I can remember a time in high school where I couldn’t walk ten feet in the hallways without hearing someone raving about Raleigh, N.C.’s indie-rock superstars: Annuals. Be He Me had just come out, and the band was clearly on the rise, touring with major acts like The Mountain Goats and Minus the Bear, all while releasing their signature brand of incredibly layered, multi-instrumental indie music. But then, sometime after 2008, Columbia Records dropped the band, and Annuals completely disappeared from the public sphere. By no means had the band’s quality of the music suffered (Such Fun masterfully combined indie and country elements, and 2010’s Sweet Sister EP will always have a special place in my heart)—the initial hype had simply died down, and most listeners had already moved on to other acts like Grizzly Bear and Manchester Orchestra, both whose popularity had conveniently soared right around the time that Annuals’ waned.

Regardless of public interest, though, Annuals continued to release music that was just as good as the Be He Me-era, if not even better, and I would happily go out on a limb to argue for the latter. Time Stamp, the band’s 2013 digital-only release, finds Annuals at the top of their game, releasing their most concise and consistent album to date, and offering 11 songs that click instantly, never clocking in at more than five minutes and never meandering off into long, drawn-out sections of unnecessary instrumentals. The record is one of the Annuals’ most uniform, without songs that stick out or overshadow other tracks, and consequently, it also feels like one of their most approachable.

However, that doesn’t mean that Time Stamp lacks in innovation or experimentation (both of which, it has plenty). Instead, the music simply stands on its own, and the album can be just as enjoyable of an experience for casual listeners who don’t read the lyrics as it is for those that choose to completely absorb themselves in the record. “I Don’t Care,” for example, has an instantly accessible hook and light, catchy verses that don’t demand a lot of attention for their payoff, but careful listeners will surely fall in love with the thoughtful, programmed percussion at the track’s end, built around the sound of drumsticks being thrown on the ground, which immediately follows the last line of the chorus, “I quit.”

Compared to the older records, Time Stamp incorporates the use of electronics quite often, and while Be He Me and the other albums were certainly littered with percussion samples and synth leads throughout, these layers were rarely brought to the forefront of the mix like they are now. Opening track, “Omnicide,” illustrates this perfectly as an extremely catchy, but rhythmically complex electronic solo concludes the song at its strongest point. It definitely sounds programmed, but moves like a delay-driven lead guitar solo, feeling both familiar and innovative, and this sets the tone for the rest of the record. Energetic track, “The Rotary,” also relies heavily on electronic samples, which dominate most of the song, and an upbeat, glitch-inspired synth lead in the bridge gives the song an intense lift right before the end.

Structurally, the music can feel rather straightforward at times, with cuts like “Winslow” following a fairly typical pattern, but when the songs are as good as they are, this isn’t a weakness at all. The delicate lightness of Adam Baker’s voice in the repeated choruses of “Whippoorwill” as he croons “Don’t you ever wonder what might roll past? Don’t you ever run around lost to kill the time?” is absolutely beautiful, and this simplicity comes to be one of Time Stamp’s greatest strengths. It’s not often that a band can successfully reinvent themselves from their previous outwardly complex identity to instead take on a subtler, simpler approach, but Annuals have done it with poise and professionalism, proving once again that they are just as talented as you remember. And that talent never left—everyone just stopped listening.

On the band's BandCamp page, they describes Time Stamp as a hopeful comeback, or perhaps something even better, and if there was going to be any album to blast Annuals back into relevancy, it would have been this. The hope rolled past, though, as the album dropped quietly in April to a criminally small audience, and a few months after the release, Annuals sadly announced on their Facebook that there would not be a comeback and, instead, there would be an end for most of the members.  As unfortunate as it is, Time Stamp is, at the very least, an incredibly strong note on which to end. The songs are catchy, approachable, and will get stuck in your head for days, but underneath all of this simplicity, there are layers upon layers of subtle arrangements that all do their part in expanding without distracting. At first, you’ll want to keep listening just because the songs like “Broke” are playful and fun, but eventually you’ll be replaying the record to discover yet another quiet synth line bolstering the verses of “Sunday, 17” or the extra subtle percussion layer in “Coffee.” There is an ocean of music in Time Stamp that has been skillfully compressed within a 40-minute timeframe, and even though it’s the last we’ll hear from Annuals as we know them now, we’ll always have them to run around lost with and kill the time.


1. Omnicide
2. Winslow
3. Sunday, 17
4. I Don't Care
5. Orbweaver
6. The Rotary
7. Whippoorwill
8. Wauauga
9. Broke
10. Coffee
11. Lil' Pitlins

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