Call it the Lambchop conundrum, or perhaps the Willard Grant Conspiracy conspiracy. In bands with a large membership, oftentimes the music actually feels less cluttered than that of smaller outfits. The more players, the more room to maneuver; that has to contradict some scientific principle of expansion. But such is the case with Band Of Annuals, six strong and makers of sounds that are undeniably spacious.
“There’s so many of us we have to be careful not to step on each other’s toes. It is open, and we want to leave it that way — more breathing room,” says Jay Henderson, chief vocalist and songwriter for Band Of Annuals. (Vocalist and Wurlitzer organist Jeremi Hanson, guitarist Jamie Timm, pedal steel player Brent Dreiling, bassist Trever Hadley, and new drummer Charlie Lewis round out the sextet.)
Case in point is “Lessons Learned”, the striking leadoff track on the band’s latest disc Let Me Live. The first minute is mostly just the intertwined voices of Henderson and Hanson, all Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary circa 1997, with pauses deep and long. Lurking in one corner, no threat to any toes, is a muted guitar that sounds like it’s seeping in from the next room over, or echoing from late the night before.
Let Me Live was originally self-released last year and will soon be issued again on homegrown Kilby Records (named after Salt Lake City’s longest-running all-ages venue, Kilby Court). The band is pleased about the extra push the record will get and about the label’s Salt Lake roots. They describe the music scene in the city as varied, strong, and supportive. It’s also somewhat self-contained, and that’s the rub: The bands don’t venture too far outside Salt Lake City and, thus, don’t tend to be known much beyond the city limits.
Band Of Annuals is out to change that by gradually expanding their touring horizons. The farthest east they’ve traveled is Kentucky, but they’ll soon be heading to Chicago and East Lansing, Michigan. (“I think that’s farther east,” offers Hadley among growing laughter, causing Dreiling to add, “We’re learning our U.S. geography as we go.”) New York is in their sights for the summer. Today, the midwest; tomorrow, New York; the day after that, the world.
They do appear ready for the long, and most likely cramped, van rides. “It’s kind of like having a lot of brothers and sisters,” says Hadley. “Everyone has their own thing to do, which is nice. Everyone’s doing that thing, and you’re working as a unit without one person taking all the weight. We’re all equal in it, and we’re all going to get equal out of it as long as we’re all putting into it the same.”
By all accounts, they like the same kind of music, a definite plus in the van. On request, they tick off a bunch of influences and inspirations: Neil Young, Tom Petty, old rockabilly, Dylan, the Byrds, John Prine, old classic country, and, oh, an obscure little band named the Beatles. It’s a list that doesn’t really prepare you for the band’s sound. OK, maybe take a couple cells from each of the above, give the concoction a little indie tweak, and wrap it in Salt Lake City soul. It’s alt-country in slow, careful motion, with Henderson’s harmonica frequently serving as the only agent of discontent as it slices through the musical calm.
Henderson’s lyrics tend to be a bit of a magical mystery tour, and that’s by design. “I kind of feel weird talking about what the songs are about, because I’d just rather have the listener listen in and take what they want from it and let it be about whatever they want it to be about,” he says. “A lot of the songs are really personal, I guess. No matter whose perspective I put it in, it all kind of strikes home. It’s just easier putting it through someone else’s eyes when you’re singing it every night, instead of your own.” Let’s hope there’s some dramatic license at work, especially with the multiple chest wounds in “Blood On My Shirt”, the most instantly affecting tune on Let Me Live.
On a couple songs, Henderson looks God-ward. The gorgeous “Something True” finds him pleading, “Give me something that is true/Lord, give me something ’cause this will not do,” with an ache that sounds like it’s reached the heavenly intervention stage. And on the longing closer “Soon”, before the song shifts to a male point of view for its second half, an aging woman asks the Lord to send her “a man with a heart and a hard-on for me.” You could say it’s a song that takes flight on a fling and a prayer.
Those songs provide a fitting context. Across the whole of Let Me Live, the members of Band Of Annuals prove to be standout students of the gospel of grace and space.