As for the actual music, the worst thing you can say is that it's almost too perfect.
"Annuals" is a good choice of band name for this Raleigh, North Carolina, sextet for two reasons. First of all, they have a youthful, ambitious sound, basically the musical form of ADD: the sonic equivalent of leafing through a high school annual yearbook. Secondly, they might actually have real ADD, too, as their consistently fast pace of recording and releasing music makes a new Annuals album, well, pretty much an annual event.
2010 has already been productive -- Annuals quietly released the Sweet Sister EP back in March. Count the Rings is a full-length, but it's not exactly new. Described as "a compelling mix of the band’s favorite songs and b-sides that have yet to see the light of day outside of the US", it features five tracks from their last full-length release, 2008's Such Fun, four tracks from Sweet Sister, rounded off with two stopgap tracks, ("Eyes in the Darkness" and "The Giving Tree") for good measure (and, I suppose, a legitimate reason for fans to purchase the album to begin with). European fans should be more enticed -- this is the first Annuals release they've seen since the critically acclaimed Be He Me, the band's debut back in 2006.
Maybe Be He Me set the bar too high. Earning the band comparisons to the likes of Arcade Fire and Animal Collective, it was a surprise blog sensation, earning them loads of critical acclaim and even TV slots on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. The praise was well deserved. It's a relentless chameleon of an album, a collection of songs that flirts with genres and moods as if they were possible mates on a speed date. Emo, prog rock, freak folk, symphonic pop? Yep. Songwriter/vocalist/producer Adam Baker and company (at the time, all under the age of 20) were trying too hard to impress with their inventiveness, but the songs were so good, they did anyway.
Sometimes critics root for the sophomore slump, and if you ask me, that's what happened with Such Fun, which was received with decidedly mixed feelings. Their chance to rise above the "it" blog band label seemed to fizzle, and one would assume the pressure to deliver another classic died down, too. Fact is: it's easier to relax when no one's watching.
Perhaps enough time has passed to give these songs another shot. The truth about Annuals albums is that, despite the band's bright hooks and winsome arrangements, these are collections of tunes that need time to absorb. Count the Rings gives us an opportunity to re-assess the group with a clear head.
On Be He Me, Baker and company drove the listener into disoriented awe through genre-hopping, but tracks like "Hot Night Hounds" and the groovy "Hardwood Floor", which morphs from folky acoustic strum to a crisp adult contemporary hook, flow and evolve more seamlessly and impressively. Instead of sounding show-offy as they did on Be He Me, here, they simply sound assured.
Baker usually employs one of two voices: a sweet, spacy drawl, or an emo-inflected howl, and most of the time, he has a hard time picking his favorite. His delivery sounds a hell of a lot like Animal Collective's Avey Tare on the former b-side, now single "Eyes in the Darkness", a track so impressive, it basically justifies the price of admission. The instrumentation is dizzying; the production is chaotic. But it never sounds forced. It's everything great about Annuals in a neat, four minute package.
This is such a weird set -- a band-curated "best of" that skips their most acclaimed album and nearly includes the entirety of their two follow-ups. For hardcore fans, this collection is worth grabbing if for nothing else than to have two new tracks. The downside is paying for a lot of music you already own. For newcomers, this is certainly a worthwhile introduction, but ignoring Be He Me would be unfair, and getting nearly all of both Such Fun and Sweet Sister will likely frustrate completists.
As for the actual music, the worst thing you can say is that it's almost too perfect. The professionalism on display, when listened to in bulk, starts to numb a bit, eventually settling somewhere close to compelling background music. It's as if the songs almost work best in a smaller package. Count the Rings, like most Annuals albums, functions a lot like a light, refreshing alcoholic beverage: it sure goes down smooth, but it's best in moderation.