Administratively, Sunfold is the same circle of six Raleigh friends who also form Annuals, an indie rock outfit that, last year, rode a crest of Internet buzz to a deal with an RCA imprint. Musically, though, the circle soon diverges into a Venn diagram, its two halves sharing a core of lyrical romantic wanderlust but little else. Adam Baker leads the left circle, Annuals, a band that undergirds its arching anthems with floods of experimental textures and liberal cum-kitchen-sink sonics. Kenny Florence helms the right circle, Sunfold, a band that highlights its melodies with pristine production and generally conservative guitar-and-rhythm section sonics.
Sunfold's stake on the right side of the aisle isn't meant to imply boredom, however: Rather, the sextet's debut, Toy Tugboats, is an imaginative coterie of styles and structures, stretching from big-horizon alternative ("Oregon") and skittering electronic circumspection ("Gorgée de Rubis") to banjo-based narratives ("Shapeshiftin'") and narcotic jazz reveries ("To Wake the Eye"). Directed by Florence's crisp instrumental predilections and his fluid voice, Sunfold handles each of these styles well. A flittering mandolin solo comes as competently executed as a piercing electric lead, stately upright bass (courtesy of guest Nic Slaton) as accomplished as big four-string snaps (from member Mike Robinson). Some of the jazz-based tunes blunder into over-affectation. But, for a band of six all in their early 20s, the tastefulness—especially in Florence's guitar and Anna Spence's piano—charms. These are techniques Annuals could sometimes stand to embrace.
But Sunfold sounds best when an earnest Florence lets himself approach the threshold of emo, or when the drive of his youth comes barely tempered by the lessons of his experience: On opener "Oregon," he exits an epic bridge—thin, orderly riffs cutting through splashy cymbals and mild distortion—as though the world's on fire behind him, singing "I'm all on my own now." Its counterpart, the tender and more staid "Sara the American Winter," finds Florence crooning for a girl: He's referencing Lewis Carroll, cleaning his house and looking for escape. With rainstorm samples, swirling synthesizers and a midsection that baits The Lion King, it's as close as Sunfold gets to Annuals. Indeed, there, near where the circles intersect, this entire axis sounds as good as it has to date.