The polished follow-up to 2006's Be He Me is a case of one step forward, two steps back.
"If we'd known it was going to catch," quoth Annuals guitarist Kenny Florence earlier this year of his band's debut, "we'd have taken more care with the sound."
And you can see his point. Promising though it was, 2006's Be He Me was a collection of (occasionally great) songs whose ambitious, ornate arrangements were often marred by murky production. Indeed, so clouded was the band's sound that the strength of Adam Baker's songwriting wasn't truly unveiled -- to this scribe, at least -- until the band were stripped to their bare bones for a superb Daytrotter session later that year. With nothing but their instrumental skeleton exposed, the passion in Baker's writing came to the fore, with the already tender "Father" transforming into a delicate work of heart-rending poignancy, and the likes of "Dry Clothes" and "Ida, My" liberated by their newfound rawness.
Be He Me's follow-up dispenses with any hopes that the band might have taken a shine to the stripped-down Daytrotter shtick, but Such Fun, co-produced by Baker and Jacquire King, still sees the mud wiped clean off their sound. The album is crisper and clearer than its debut, and the North Carolina sextet have clearly had the benefit of a bigger kitty than was previously available. The consequence is very much a major-label sound -- it's piano that jangles now rather than keyboard, bleeps and crackles replaced with brass and strings.
Lyrically, Baker treads similar paths as before, expunging loss and solitude with frequent nods back to youth. Musically, however, sunshine melodies prevail more than before, cultivating a newfound, slightly nostalgic poppiness. The best results of this are when both elements blend to achieve a Shins-esque dichotomy; evocative themes wrapped up in buoyant harmonies. Prime example are the Beach Boys doo-wops and tinkling keys that assuage Baker's pained howls on "Springtime", which culminates in joyous gang-chanting, while "Hardwood Floor" exudes a wistful melancholy despite its brisk guitar and sunny backing vocals. By contrast, "Down the Mountain" -- an unprecedented and wholly unwanted foray into country and western, all energetic fiddling and Deep South accentuation -- shows why too much sunshine can be a bad thing, and is salvaged only in part by an emboldened chorus.
That said, the comparatively downbeat "Blue Ridge" is worse, beginning with an utterly embarrassing exchange between a crying baby (no, really) and Baker ("What's wrong? Aw, it's OK…I'll sing you a song") that cues a string-laden lullaby. Though Baker's determined pessimism brings a degree of redemption towards its less lackadaisical finale, nothing -- seriously, nothing -- with such an entrée could henceforth be taken seriously.
Such silliness aside, Such Fun is at once both a step forward and a step back. Forward because Baker's songwriting has genuinely matured -- gone is the occasional loss of direction that marred Be He Me's less outstanding cuts -- but backwards because the album has a whole struggles to maintain to concurrent elements of adventure and energy that made their debut such a draw in the first place. While it could be argued that it's a braver step to make a more accessible album such as this, instead of merely the crisper version of Be He Me we perhaps expected, it is significant that this record's highlights are where the spirit of Annuals' debut remains intact. The climax of "Wake" is a big, brassy flourish, but even as the album's finale it's the first truly expansive gesture. That's not to belittle all that comes before it -- the crunchy "Hair Don't Grow" and the understated pop-rock of "Confessor" are also highlights -- but there's a certain lessening of scope that seems to have accompanied the band's newfound focus.
Put simply, the clearing of the clouds of Be He Me has resulted in a certain sterilisation of the Annuals sound. The band retains an experimental edge, but it's all-too-often now embodied in clinical genre-hopping, meaning that for all its ostensible claims, Such Fun just isn't as fun as it should be.