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Be He Me
(Ace Fu Records)

The timing is right for a band like Raleigh six-piece Annuals: Predecessors The Arcade Fire made indie rock safe for anthemic melodrama with 2004's Funeral, and Animal Collective gave emotional gravitas grace with their dense synthesis of melody and mayhem on last year's Feels. But, in the iTunes market, waiting is just inconvenient, and the kids need new, smart catharses now. The Arcade Fire continues to toil through its follow-up, and Animal Collective finally premiered new material on tour last month. The Flaming Lips managed to foil its own trifecta with At War with the Mystics, and bands like Tapes 'n Tapes seem too hemmed in, too close to center to get behind.

But not Annuals. Led by Adam Baker and a supporting cast he's been recording with since high school at Enloe (in pop-punk band Timothy's Weekend and as Corgan-and-Yorke acolytes Sedona), Annuals are interested in making pop music by flooding the gates, filling unorthodox structures with unexpected sounds and building huge dynamic shifts by stacking dozens of barely congruous textures together. It can be involvingly powerful and promisingly smart, like a daytime dream of the Collective's sonic enthusiasm mingling with the Fire's elevating spires.

On Be He Me--the band's full-length debut on New York label Ace Fu Records, which also claims DeVotchka, Man Man and An Albatross--Annuals almost become the kids' autumn panacea. Several tracks here are perfect: Opener "Brother" creeps in with halcyon, resigned finger-picking and barely audible cymbal rolls, crawling through a controlled build, a chorus and a bed of electronics swelling and ebbing behind Baker. Suddenly, it explodes: Hard, four-on-the-floor drums pump through mammoth string-and-keyboard sweeps, propulsion verified on tape as Baker lets loose with triumphant flair.

  • Annuals

Subsequent momentum and concomitant near-perfection drive the first side, able transitions, consistently histrionic dynamics and an iterated instrumental core--variations on a whimsical violin line, plinking piano leads, a rhythm section that ably pushes its way through all the layers--helping it gel. "Bleary Eyed" is a solidarity spiritual for a late-night hootenanny of young and jilted suburbanites, and "Complete or Completing" chases its own tail through a tampered waltz, allowing for a playful bridge stapled on the down beat.

Despite its beauty, "Complete or Completing" is an early indication of Be He Me's central miscue. It starts simply enough with vocals, piano, swinging drums and traces of tremolo guitar, and its eventual climb into strings and a chanted chorus works. But a two-minute coda is wasted entirely on repetition. It's produced by the same kind of extraneous, redundant compulsion that--in other spots--finds Annuals putting too much into a package that would do well to meet restraint. "Father"--a gorgeous piano ballad--loses some of its efficacy with bits of neophyte electronic manipulation. Elsewhere, auxiliary drum tracks and an over-reliance on keyboards to saturate arrangements hinders many of Be He Me's grand motions, simply turning loud into louder. Annuals struggle to leave well enough alone.

But Be He Me is, rightfully, very much about seeking self-identity. "Brother" speaks about growing up and apart, the closeness of kinship relinquished by circuits of alternate exposure, and "Fair" asserts that some relationships are made to be broken. Baker isn't who he was before, and Be He Me is a successful attempt to offer explanation without apology.

It's an appropriate motif for Be He Me, a captivating entrée from a band still searching for enough confidence to let the song stand on its own merits. Baker's songwriting is driving and fantastically unfocused, a product of tossed-off images and elliptical narration. It invites dynamic rock structures and the band's wall-of-sound treatment, but it's often overridden by its own ambition. Still, plenty here suggests Annuals--in due time--can be special. --Grayson Currin

Annuals play a CD release show on Monday, Oct. 16 at Schoolkids Records at 11 p.m. Admission is free. The band plays Tuesday, Oct. 17 at The Brewery with The Never and Tom Yoder. Tickets are $8. For more, see www.myspace.com/annuals or www.annualsmusic.com.

Jeremy Lev

Rhythms from Another Summer

A frat dude would rightfully call this chill: Jeremy Lev's nine-track debut, Rhythms from Another Summer, is a perfect example of earthy, groove-oriented rock in a post-Bradley Nowell world. Under the influence of Ben Harper and Bob Marley, Chapel Hill's Lev fuses folk, jazz and reggae into airy anthems only slightly removed from surf stud Jack Johnson.

Comparisons aside, Rhythms is reasonably well-written, its easily digestible tracks crafted for those flying inches below the radar. Lev attempts to keep interest high with frequent, though not always tasteful, stylistic shifts, the wah-wah funk and demi-rapping on "Nastravia" playing against the lounge jazz of "I'm at Home" and the bossa nova of "Neurotique." Bassist Charles Pobee-Mensah and drummer Aaron Tosky duly set an unobjectionable background for Lev's swaying guitar and wavering voice, which rarely strays from nuevo-hippy themes of love, hope and nature.

The album sets no new standards, but--in a mediocrity-saturated genre with the collective aspiration of playing a Bonnaroo side stage--it isn't bad. The tracks are instantly familiar, and aside from the distracting rhymes of "Nastravia," their quality is consistent.

Lev describes Rhythms from Another Summer as "experiences from three different summers, each with their own rhythm and significance." If these Rhythms continue, Lev can hope to become the summer soundtrack for Birkenstocked teen-to-20-somethings for years to come. --Rich Ivey

Jeremy Lev plays Brightleaf Square on Oct. 13 at noon, Third Place Coffee Shop on Oct. 26 and Open Eye Cafe on Oct. 27. For more, see www.myspace.com/jeremylev.

Dexter Romweber

(Orange Sounds)

Dexter Romweber should wear a warning label: "Approach with Caution." Romweber, onstage or on record, is dangerous. He beats guitars into submission, shreds strings until there's one left, and never slows his howling. His exhibitions are as much performance art as they are music.

Unlike some of Romweber's guitar-assisted performances with the Flat Duo Jets or his more recent Duo, his latest offering doesn't make you cover your ears, primarily because his instrument of choice has its strings anchored too firmly for Romweber's grip. This is called Piano.

Sure, it's more "soothing" than most of his previous work, but it's still rough in typical Romweber patches. His love of dissonance lurks in the background of "Chapel Hill Concerto Without Orchestra," atonal clusters clattering. "Carrboro March" mimics the relentless pounding you'd expect from Romweber's guitar, while "Trap Door" sounds like a child experimenting with a scale. "Evolutionary Etude," though, is classical gumbo, snippets of famous composers spliced together. It's mercifully short.

It's hard to know what to do with Piano. It will appeal only to a few Jets or Duo fans. There's no shrieking or string-tearing. Maybe it will surface as a novelty record for a round of "You'll Never Guess Who This Is?" But just maybe. --Grant Britt

Dexter Romweber opens for Twilighter at The Cave on Friday, Oct. 13. The show begins at 10 p.m. For more, see www.myspace.com/dexterromweberduo.

Puritan Rodeo

We All Share the Same Secret

Wrangling three musical genres into one cohesive unit is never easy, but the boys of Puritan Rodeo take the proverbial bull by the horns and ride it just right. Like its name implies, Puritan Rodeo bridges the gap between the frenzied rodeo's wild side and its antithesis in the pragmatic puritan. Such juxtaposition provides a firm if unorthodox backbone to their debut, We All Share the Same Secret. The band brings in brash rockist acoustic and electric guitars, nestling them next to trad grass's mandolin, fiddle and jaw harp. Lyrics of regret come set to a toe-tap melding the facets alt-country, traditional bluegrass and hardened rock.

Secret's seven tracks read like leaves of the diary of a jilted lover, with relationship mistakes, lost lovers and battles with the bottle playing out on every page. "Last Round" is a revelry in self-loathing for holding the proverbial "smoking gun" in a failed love affair: Witness "If I'd known I'd held a loaded gun, never would I do to you what I'd done" shouted over minor-key fiddle. Slow-burner "Tijuana Teardrops" recalls love lost down south, while "Cigarette Song" and "Cold Comfort" make for jingle-worthy discourse. Closer "Bones & Cotton"--the best track here--offers an allegory for a life that lacks substance.

This diary--full of secrets splayed open--is a page-turner that's hard to put down. --Kathy Justice

Puritan Rodeo plays The Underground on Oct. 12, City Limits on Oct. 18 and The Wetlands on Oct. 28. For more, see www.myspace.com/puritanrodeo or www.puritanrodeo.com.

Various Artists
Homemade Covers

As Allen Ginsberg would have it, musicians make their most interesting work when they remove their heads from self-limiting bubbles of thought. Homemade Covers--a collection of local Triangle artists reworking idols (and false ones) and largely emerging with something fresh--is an empirical testament to that concept. Sure, free mp3s may not sound like an elaborate or official release, but this clutch of musicians--many trying instruments and styles to which they are unaccustomed--has taken to efficiency and expediency, throw the files on a Web site (www.bullfightparty.org/cirox/covers) with downloadable cover art and the pertinent name-checks. Everything about this release, from the tunes to the burned discs of the intended audience, is homemade.

Process aside, these 12 cuts skip across genres funky, free and formal. David Mueller of Strange moonlights as Heads on Sticks here, with a free-blowing take on Ellington's "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart," while The Nein's Finn Cohen (Semiotic Crouton) mashes a jumble of Monk's "Round Midnight" with some Bach on piano.Syd Barrett's "See Emily Play" gets the sax treatment by Samuel Robison and D.C. Nahm. There are earnest takes on pop and neo-jazz, even if the choices are meant to be ironic. Matt Kalb takes on Steely Dan's "Barrytown"; Sade's "Love is Stronger Than Pride" finds Robert Biggers steel drumming; and Screeching Weasel get a bubbly techno salute to their "I Wanna Be a Homosexual" (originally a jab at the homophobia inherent in the hardcore scene) by Motherbrothers. But a throwaway straight take on The Dead's "Touch of Grey" by Silk Nogg could've stayed in the can.

Two standouts come from tireless experimenters. Zeke Graves (under Claudie Gravie guise) lauds Keith "The Dark Prince of Reggae" Hudson with a stab at his eerie "Darkest Night" that percolates like strong Jamaican coffee. Chopin's "Prelude in E minor, Opus 28 No. 4" adapts perfectly to a modern classical treatment from Pykrete, Chuck Johnson's electronic project: At first sounding like one of Tod Dockstader's tape collages, it moves into liquid notes that drop in splashes and beeps. Sadly, it's the shortest track here, but it transcends "tribute" into the realm of the sublime most completely. --Chris Toenes

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