If you listen to Neil Young's recently released 1968 concert album Sugar Mountain, you'll find it virtually impossible to separate the charming 22 year-old kid in that recording from the grizzled, caveman-ish rock legend of today. There's too much historical context to wade through, preventing us from hearing young Neil's budding genius with objective virgin ears.
Fortunately, if you're hung up on talented 22-year-old musicians, some of them can still be found right here in 2009 - fresh-faced and yet to be cast in the shadow of their own realized potential. One of the very best is Adam Baker, frontman for the Raleigh indie-rock sextet Annuals. At an age when most guys are realizing they should have chosen a different major, Baker is generating buzz as one of rock's finest young songwriters - a title once held by a certain Canadian fellow before the gold rush.
"It's not even about youth, really, but maybe just being less jaded," says Baker ."I fuckin' hate that word, but you know, an unspoiled mind starting to make music is a priceless thing. And I'm not saying I'm unspoiled or a diamond in the rough or anything. I'm just saying people have a much better state of mind about music and art and creativity when they haven't been around too many other people who are doing it. Just having that fresh outlook on things creates the opportunity for somebody to make a really great record or work of art - when you're not remotely tired of it yet and you're still having fun at every turn."
Of course, not everything about being a young, critically lauded rocker is as fun as it was in 1968. Even as Annuals were basking in the overwhelming response to their 2006 debut album Be He Me, the blogosphere's lovefest with the band wasn't translating into record sales. For Baker and his North Carolina comrades, success would have to have its sacrifices.
"I'm certainly not making any money," says Baker, almost scoffing at the notion. "I'm not even able to afford my own apartment. I'm definitely proud that we're going somewhere and that I get to do this, but it's certainly not the same thing it used to be. If we were where we are now, say, 15 years ago, when records were still selling, we wouldn't have a damn thing to worry about."
But Baker has no ill will toward the Internet, no matter how many Annuals "fans" choose to illegally download his songs.
"At this stage, I call the Internet a friend, because anyone who thinks they're going to make any money from selling records is just living in the '90s. There's no chance. It's just not possible anymore. Now you make money by touring, period. So, the Internet is a friend. People can read about you, find out about you. It generates interest in music you might not ever hear otherwise."
When Annuals are described on the aforementioned Internet, they tend to get an inordinate amount of comparisons to a pair of Canadian bands: the Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. In reality, aside from mashing together an eclectic array of influences and orchestration, Annuals don't actually sound a lot like either of those bands. They have, however, created a music community in Raleigh somewhat akin, on a much smaller scale, to the one that Broken Social Scene helped jumpstart in Toronto.
"I think Raleigh has had a pretty massive influence on our music," says Baker. "I've been playing around here since I was 12 or 13, so it's definitely had a huge impact on me. I was actually just thinking about this the other day - if I'm ever actually going to be able to leave this city. I'm already turning into an old man at 22, not wanting to leave. But the music scene here right now is starting to really evolve, and bands are branching out into new directions and genres, which I think is really important to a good music scene. You'll want to keep your eye on Raleigh."
For now, at least, Annuals are the undisputed ambassadors of that scene, and they're currently touring the frigid North in support of their second album, Such Fun, which dropped in October. With a bright, expansive sound to match the Bob Ross landscape painting on its cover, Such Fun finds all six members of Annuals at the peak of their (still developing) powers. It should be noted Baker himself plays pretty much everything, and when it comes to the development of a song, it's well understood who's in charge. "Usually, I write the song, and I'll go in there and record it, and then everyone else comes in and adds things to it," says Baker. "There are certainly times when I'll be defensive about the way I want the song, but usually I'm more than happy to get more input. It can be very draining being the creative head of things sometimes. And everyone in my band is so fucking good, I definitely respect all of them and appreciate all their ideas. So yeah, it's pretty democratic. I don't think I'm an asshole, but I definitely am at the helm, and I think everyone's OK with that."