Depending upon whom you ask, Annuals’ debut, 2006’s Be He Me, was either so ambitious that it surpassed simply name-checking its obvious influences (Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Flaming Lips, Animal Collective, and other big, ambitious groups) or was so grafted in imitation that its ambition didn’t compensate for its lack of originality. In any case, critical opinion was split, and even those critics who saw Annuals doing more than just hopping on the freak-folk/multi-instrumentalist/Mangum-with-some-avant-garde-thrown-in indie bandwagon didn’t think that Be He Me was earth-shattering. Instead, they cautioned, this was a band to watch — let’s see how it grows up.
Which is why the idea behind the Frelen Mas EP is so confusing. If we assume that an LP is a band putting its best current material on the market, then the “rarities” of the LP’s recording sessions — i.e. everything that didn’t make the cut the first go-round — would necessarily be worse. So why would a band that’s towing the line between acclaim and insignificance want to release a necessarily worse product than the one before? If Illinois hadn’t been such a hit, Sufjan Stevens wouldn’t have released Avalanche. Grizzly Bear wouldn’t have recorded Friend EP if not for Yellow House. What I want to know is what Annuals is doing next, not what it’s already done.
For the most part, everything on this EP is worse than what’s on Be He Me. Not that everything sounds the same, exactly. Some of it does, and the basic structure of their earlier songs — a calmer, quietly scattered sound featuring Adam Baker’s plaintive vocals erupts halfway to a short-lived, Animal Collective-esque orchestral orgy that soon subsides to the initial wandering tone to finish — is still here in tracks like “Such a Mess.” But the B-sides are generally less raucous than the LP songs, and the influences are even more pronounced now that they aren’t hidden behind a wall of sound.
“River Run” features Fiery Furnaces’ big Broadway chords with Arcade Fire vocals and some Revolver horns for good measure. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is a nearly embarrassing version of the gospel tune that tries to imitate Sweetheart of the Rodeo’s delivery and is only saved by the interesting voice manipulation toward the end. When Baker and company try to pull off Thom Yorke-style acoustic tracks, as on “Misty Coy” and “Sewn to Kites,” they come off sounding less like OK Computer and more like John Mayer.
There are two tracks that should have been released on the LP. “Ease My Mind” is the best here — so what if it sounds like it could be on the next Broken Social Scene album? Its distinct, earnest, and driving melody is propelled even further along when Zack Oden and Nick Radford add their melange of drum beats. And the title track is about as dreamy as dream pop can get.
Nothing, in fact, on this hodgepodge of songs is so bad that it diminishes anticipation of Annuals next proper release. The band is still young, after all.