Following the release of his band's 2006 buzz-magnetic debut, Be He Me, Annuals frontman Adam Baker described his songwriting process: "Fishing, catching something really small, dipping it into candle wax repeatedly, and then decorating it. Dipping it into candle wax again and then dipping it into chocolate sprinkles, not rainbow sprinkles—rainbow sprinkles are played out—and then you have a song."
One could speculate that Baker, then 20, was just high, or perhaps simply teasing New York critic Arye Dworken, who seemed intent on tricking the band into admitting that, yes, they really were a cross between The Arcade Fire and Animal Collective (something I'd suggested in an earlier review, too). But, at that point, that silly-string schematic seemed to fit Baker, whose Be He Me hemorrhaged sound haphazardly beneath songs that didn't say so much. A hook occasionally held ("Brother," "Dry Clothes" and "Complete or Completing" still do), but the songs seemed guided more by sonic size than real substance. They were all over the place, somewhat sloppy and, collected as an album, paradoxically burdensome and empty.
Such Fun—Annuals' second album but its first for Sony imprint Canvasback Music—largely corrects this problem by letting the band stick its rangy sounds to words that are, at last, more communicative than associative. Though Such Fun sounds absolutely nothing like that old reference of Animal Collective, it works in much the same way as that band's own "love" record, Feels. Such Fun is, for most intents and purposes, a record of early-adult love songs, cast best with vivid images, like names carved into tree bark or tears falling to water young love like it's a lily. That is, Baker is writing about a girl in a way that's lucid enough to be alluring but obfuscated just enough to be provocative. Baker crucifies himself as the failed, hopeless romantic in the opening couplet ("Pack up and leave every day/ I plant the seed to rip the roots away") and resurrects himself as the guy willing to put it all on the line during "Wake," the impressionistic closing number ("I'll ache my chest with spirits weight"). It's a good look for the still-young Baker, a sonic savant who's now found a way to connect that's bigger than bombast and hook.
Like Baker, the band sharpens its focus on Such Fun, an album that's pristinely recorded and smartly executed. The quirks are still intact, like the sporadic snare rimshots pinging around the mix beneath the acoustic guitar of "Hardwood Floor" or the sharp, playful, early '90s alt.rock guitar lead that slices through first single "Confessor." But there's actually negative space on Such Fun, allowing for dynamic shifts within the album and giving what's there more impact. The keyboards aren't crowded this time, so smart little intricacies, like the coupled violin and steel guitar moans of "Always Do," actually breathe. To the band's credit, it makes the seams seem mostly seamless: African rhythm outros fall into an awkward but somehow charming country junker, and a menacing little post-punk dance tune falls tenderly into an acoustic ballad that builds back against its own quiet.
Perhaps such balance and precision will cost Annuals fans. But Such Fun—in all of its controlled excess, stylistic enthusiasm, emotional exhibitionism and sophomore improvement—is worth more than an MP3 blog ingratiation, anyway.