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Poppy Hybrids

"I thought it was garbage," says guitarist Kenny Florence, recalling the first time singer/songwriter Adam Baker let him hear the new songs he'd been writing as Annuals.

"The first few songs, I really didn't like. And he'll admit to you that they're just not that great," Florence says. "But then, there was this weird phase Adam had where he completely changed. He started smoking cigarettes, got a bunch of tattoos and wrote all these great fucking songs."

Those songs — the great ones, not the garbage ones — made North Carolina's Annuals an overnight Internet buzz band when they hit the streets last year with Be He Me, a richly orchestrated, intensely emotional burst of creativity that was likened to a mixture of Broken Social Scene, Animal Collective, and Arcade Fire.

But there's more to the picture than that — from the Graceland-inspired percussion to that hint of Brian Wilson's more experimental side on cuts like "Dry Clothes," which is probably the coolest (if not the only) song inspired by The Sandlot, some goofy-ass kid movie starring a really big dog that apparently haunted Baker's nightmares as a child.

"The whole song is a narrative," Baker explains. "And the first verse would go with the scene in The Sandlot where the kids are in the tree house talking about the big-ass dog next door. And I wanted a childlike aura about it, so I figured I'd bring in a movie that was very heavy in all of our lives."

And these guys are just young enough for that to be a very heavy movie in their lives. Baker is 20 and a year older than Florence, who says he was 12 when they first started playing together with Annuals bassist Mike Robinson. The sound, as often happens when you're 12 and 13 at the turn of the century, was straight-up pop-punk.

"When you're young," Florence says, "you just don't really know about music as much you could because you only get it from certain places like MTV."

Florence, whose credits on the Annuals record range from lead guitar to banjo, was doing the writing then, a role he continued to play in their next group, Sedona, a proggier project he compares to The Mars Volta. But when Baker's solo effort earned a deal with Ace Fu Records, they all became Annuals.

As to how a person goes from pop-punk to the softer, more mature approach these guys have found on Be He Me, Florence blames Radiohead.

"I remember when OK Computer came out. I was maybe 9 or 10," he says. "And I liked it a lot, but I forgot about it. Then, in high school, I was like 'Hey, remember that Radiohead band?' So we all started listening to them again. And we were just like 'Shit, this stuff is so much better than the Casualties. And Anti-Flag. Or whatever we might have been listening to. And then we got big into Björk and started listening to lots of older music, too."

By then, of course, they'd aged into their late teens.

"As we got older, our taste evolved and changed," Baker says. "Eventually, we all just started getting into every type of music and enjoying it for whatever it brought to the table. And I guess the Annuals idea is to bring all those genres together and try to make something new of it." It doesn't appear as though they brought much of their early punk tastes to the table, though. "No, we left that behind," Baker says.

But even though the Annuals manage to pool a gamut of influences together into a cohesive sound, they're not about to hit a groove that'll allow for easy pigeonholing. They're still evolving. "If it didn't evolve, we'd all be really bored," Baker says. "So it's still evolving. Otherwise, we wouldn't really have the motivation to finish anything."

For now, they'd like to finish that career-defining second album, conveniently written before the first one touched off all that hype. "So the pressure was off," Baker says.

And if the second record's even close to what they're promising, it may surprise some fans and members of the blogosphere alike who thought they had them figured out.

Apparently, it should find the band moving in more of a country direction. Baker says he's really gotten into Johnny Cash again since cutting Be He Me, and he now ranks Cash with Brian Wilson on his list of biggest inspirations.

And then there's Brad Paisley.

No, really. Brad Paisley.

"You don't like Brad Paisley? What up?" Baker says with a laugh, when he's asked if he's kidding. "I have all his records."

Going country could be just the thing to help them shake off all those tired old comparisons to Animal Collective, Broken Social Scene, and Arcade Fire.

And it's not that they don't like those bands. They just don't really hear them in their music. But the main thing Baker likes to stress is that he wrote the songs on Be He Me before he'd even heard of those bands. "I hadn't even heard of Arcade Fire until our first record came out and the first review mentioned them," Baker says. "I was like, 'What?! I've got to hear this shit.'"

And when they did hear it? "I was like, 'Well, this is goooood . . .'" Florence says, sounding unconvinced. "But we obviously didn't try to rip it off if we didn't even know who they were. And when people try to explain the comparison, I don't really understand what they're trying to say."

As for getting the followup out on the street, they'd like to see that happen soon. But they're not sure the label would agree.

"They haven't even asked about the new songs," Baker says. "They know they're there, but they just want to concentrate on pushing this one right now. We haven't even put tentative dates on it yet, but it shouldn't be too far away, because if we wait too long, I'll have too much of a backlog."

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Ed Masley