The Panera Bread Company in downtown Chapel Hill, NC is filled with a bunch of average Joes hunched over pricey sandwiches. Picking at chips and sipping cups of soup, no one in the joint bats an eyelash at recent Ace Fu signees Annuals, who've seated themselves at a big table by the entrance. This air of indifference has nothing to do with Panera's generally square patronage, or even the fact that Annuals are far from famous. Rather, its members blend in pretty convincingly with the clientele.
The six members of Raleigh, North Carolina's Annuals aren't cowboy-shirted hipsters, or aloof New York post-grads; not what you'd expect from a band currently scaling the cool-kid ranks and pulling paragraphs from heavyweight critics. And even though their strange, wide-eyed songs might suggest otherwise, Annuals are some of the most normal kids in indie rock. Nonetheless, the band delivers just what the blogosphere has been waiting for–exotic, experimental rock made by people too genuine and young (average age: 20) to call pretentious.
"We're so tired of waiting," bassist Mike Robinson says of the impending release of his band's debut album, Be He Me. "Everything we've done has built up to this since we were kids. We're coming up on a decade of playing together, and finally it's happening."
It was 1999 when Robinson, Kenny Florence, and Adam Baker–then middle-schoolers–formed their first band, playing meaty punk rock songs for crowds of their friends. But everything changed when the trio met Zach Oden, an adventurous percussionist and music appreciator, whose influence compelled them to trade in Blink 182 riffs for Mike Patton-esque sonic weirdness.
"Basically, we were sick and tired of rock 'n' roll music," says Baker, who initially helmed the Annuals project on his own. "The biggest thing for me was meeting Zach, who brought all this great music to the table that we had never heard."
Throughout Be He Me, just what was brought to the table becomes clear: kaleidoscopic pop experimentalism. Album opener "Brother" travels through an enchanted forest only to break into a clearing filled with propulsive, percussion-led stomp. From the Latin funk of "Carry Around" to the glitchy zip of "Ida, My," Annuals borrows the prettiest and strangest elements of Flaming Lips' psych-rock and Animal Collective's fairy-dust jamborees.
But Annuals sees the world through bright and happy (not bloodshot) eyes, remaining ever mindful of their songs' pop backbones. This is where the band truly succeeds: being memorable and catchy in the strangest of ways, but normal at the same time.