“To Be Young”: Inside the Suburban Reveries of Annabel
by Chad Jewett
Next time we’re all here, expect to be talking about Youth in Youth. Almost destined to be the kind of album that will resurface like a revelation a decade or so from now, the 2012 LP from Ohio emo quartet Annabel has somehow managed to be both one of the genre’s new masterpieces and one of its most underrated achievements. Like The Hotelier’s Home, Like NoPlace Is There, or The World Is A Beautiful Place’s Whenever, If Ever, or Football, etc.’s Audible, Youth in Youth is a compelling atlas of a specific time and place, committed to the difficult questions and even more difficult answers of a generation that is almost historically unsure. Perhaps even afraid of being sure. Perhaps less a concept album than a collection of variations on a theme, Youth in Youth plumbs the allure, guilt, desire, fear, and pathos of the suburbs. In that way, the record also has something to say about the beating heart of the last two decades of emo and punk music — a youth movement that has increasingly left the urban centers of New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Boston and ended up on cul de sacs and college towns – like the ones sprinkled around Cleveland and Akron that the band more or less call home.
The album’s color palette is similarly sepia and worn-in, a warm cross section of five decades of young music. At times harmonies swoon and crest in Beach Boys shapes; certain songs hold the after-school dramatics of Saves The Day; others shimmer in twilit strokes like American Football. The album feels lived-in and gently nostalgic even before Ben Hendricks populates the band’s carefully arranged three-minute songs with fears of post-graduate responsibilities and the dissonance of the world “out there” and the comforts of familiar streets and two-story starter homes. I ask Hendricks about the palpable indecision of the album, whether the aura of mixed-feelings that coats Youth in Youth was a goal, whether the record could be called a “concept album”.
“I don’t think it was a goal; I think it was just what I naturally felt inspired to write, what was going on in my life at the time. It’s kind of a ‘transition’ type record, where you start to see positives and negatives in a lot of things. So I guess it was about mixed emotions and going through the motions. I would say it’s not a total concept album, but I would say it’s focused. I was definitely focused on a certain theme, not so much a concept, not so much in an elaborate sense. But I did want the songs to have a general type of feeling, a general emotion, something that feels whole as opposed to a group of songs that are about random things.”
That “general type of feeling” is one of sadness spiked with optimism, or vice versa. Indeed, on the album’s striking, poignant closing song, “Our Days Were Numbered,” that complex tangle of emotions becomes indelible. Doubling as both a love song (“I want to be with you forever”) and a explication of commitment (“Part of the fun, they say, is in the mystery / I guess I’ll wait it out for now” – notice how “Forever” becomes “For now”), “Our Days Were Numbered” is Annabel’s finest song, and also their most difficult.
Hendricks, whose affable politeness and even voice belie the sort of astuteness that keeps a band together for six years, continues to unpack the song: “There are just so many different emotions in that type of situation. It’s partly a love song but also partly about fear. I don’t want to say ‘fear of commitment’ or anything like that, but the decisions you make do have an impact on your spot later in life, so you do have to weigh everything. I guess everything just feels more dramatic at such a young age. When you’re older I assume you’re able to be more at piece with your decisions, but right now everything just feels so open and there’s so much questioning about ‘What is the right thing to do?’.”
The band recently released a re-worked version of the song, pointedly retitled “Forever,” on a split with fellow midwestern emo-pop adepts Dowsing. The new version is whittled down to a sharp, power-pop point, the delicate slow build of the original now rebuilt as a simplified engine. Andy Hendricks, the band’s drummer and brother to Ben, notes the evolution of “Our Days Were Numbered”: “It totally started out as a different song too. There’s the new version out on Count Your Lucky Stars.”
“It went through this transition phase,” Ben adds, “where we had this idea to do this really grungy punk song, and then these guys were like ‘I don’t know if that’s the best idea’. I guess my idea was just to do the most dirty love song you could ever imagine. It was just ‘I want to be with you’ over and over, and then we decided that it might not be the best idea, ‘lets work with it a little bit’. And then we slowed it down and started playing it with complex chords and it just felt boring, like a normal Annabel song. So then when we were finishing writing and we had almost the whole record done I just wanted to revisit that idea, kind of stubbornly saying ‘I think this is a really cool idea, let’s just try something else with it.’ So I started playing it really slow, dream-like and it just developed from there.”
That complicated run of re-workings is a salient example of Annabel’s sense of craft. What these offsetting versions of “Our Days Were Numbered”/”Forever” underline is how much of a song the root composition really is, the extent to which its grasp on melody and structure and canny simplicity hold up under multiple re-designs and de-familiarizations. You’ve written a real song when it still manages all that weight and all those cosmetics. It also reflects the band’s careful approach to their own aesthetic. Andy Hendricks recalls hearing the initial, punk-ier version and remarking “That’s not Annabel.” In a sense it’s hard not to see that observation as a synecdoche for how the band operates, for the precise pop instincts that define Youth in Youth. More troublingly, one even wonders if Annabel’s middle-class place in the conversation surrounding “emo revival” has something to do with the care they take, with the ways in which their most recent album and its cerebral narratives of maturity, commitment, love, and adulthood, might be leaning against a hurricane wind of more self-consciously anarchic, opaque, deconstructed math-pop. Ironically, Youth in Youth is in some ways an album about growing out of precisely the new adolescence of a contemporary vogue for the goofy caffeine sprees of Cap’n Jazz. It’s an album that paints a gorgeous picture of getting older in a scene defined by a dogged focus on staying young.
If so, Annabel seem largely untroubled by this. “I don’t know. We’re kind of on a lot of different spectrums of music,” Ben replies. “Some people will say we’re too indie, or the indie people will say we’re too emo. So we’re not really a straightforward band, so I feel like people might have a tough time grasping what it is we are doing. We’re definitely a part of it; we feel a part of it. It’s just some people might not entirely grasp our sound, or we might not fit exclusively in this thing that’s going on. Which, I never wanted to in the first place. So I’m okay with that.”
Andy adds: “I feel like people have always had a tough time with that. We started this band doing what we wanted to do, and we started off playing with punk bands and they liked us and we toured with some of them, and we just sort of got thrown in all these different genres and scenes, and now this whole emo revival, I think we somehow fit in with it, I just don’t know where.”
Corey Willis, the band’s guitarist and the one responsible, during the bands live sets, for the incidental organ and keyboard parts that dot Youth in Youth (see, for instance, the organ in the middle-eight of “Anti-Decisions”), seems happy for the community that emo and punk, at their best, have fostered: “We’ve booked all those bands at some point in the last five years. We’re connected with those people. We know them all, pretty much. So there’s that as well.”
Scott Moses, who plays bass for the band, continues the thought. “I think it’s more valuable to be into this scene enough to where you can have a community of friends, can travel around and see people you haven’t seen in a long time. And whether or not, sonically, we fit into the emo revival, 90% of my friends now are a result of being in this band and that’s really cool. So whether or not we fit in sonically, the fact that we have a bunch of friends that are in that is great.”
Moses is similarly upbeat about how the album is regarded: “I think it had a good reception. Anywhere that we play that we haven’t played in a while, where those people haven’t heard those songs live it’s still fun to play. Like last need people were singing to certain songs off the record and that felt cool.”
The answers reflect an earnestness that runs deep throughout Youth in Youth. Annabel is a band unafraid to care in an era that is very, very afraid to care. Indeed, Ben takes considerable time in answering my questions about the album. When I ask about the meaning of the title, Ben replies, “I think it’s just the duality of youth and what it means. I guess ‘Is there youth inside of youth?’ It’s questioning what exactly age means and what you’re supposed to do in a specific time period in your life. One of the lyrics is ‘The you in youth’, seeing the first three letters of that brought it all back to that idea. What age are you not considered a youth anymore? Is it just a state of mind, or this set thing that at a certain age you’re done with this period of your life and you have to move on and get into a whole new period of your life where you’re supposed to be certain types of things?”
I ask about the guilt and privilege associated with the suburbs, to which Ben offers a subtle, thoughtful answer. “You know I wasn’t really trying to focus on a certain type of people in particular, but everyone has different privileges, everyone grows up into different kinds of situations and it doesn’t necessarily make it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s just the things you’re provided with. So I guess overlooking my personal privileges, I was raised by great parents in a great environment, so I guess sometimes that can cause a little bit of guilt in a way because there are a lot of people who didn’t have it as good as me. So I think that helps you to analyze a little bit more in comparing the types of things you grew up with compared to others.”
Youth in Youth would appear to operate as a series of arcs, from the opening rebellion of the stomping, effervescent “Young American” to the attempts at comfort and acceptance that run through “Anti-Decisions,” the guilty consciences of “Home” and ending with the deep ambivalence and possible rebellions of “Our Days Were Numbered.” Hendricks seems willing to entertain that idea of a changing through-line: “I think definitely. Particularly on ‘You Could Be Living Better’ that song shifts in that way – you realize ‘Okay, this is real’, kind of coming to terms I guess. The title of the song was inspired by something my girlfriend actually said to me: ‘You could be living better’, and I kind of just realized there is a certain way, a quality of life that you could obtain or attempt to obtain. And ‘Our Days Were Numbered’ kind of caps it off.
When I ask Hendricks about literary influences on the narratives of the album, the singer-guitarist cites Raymond Carver, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, and Charles Bukowski. Andy adds Harry Potter, and despite being a joke (one that elicits laughter all around), there is probably a case to be made for the whimsy that Annabel does bring to these subjects of young angst that can’t be found in the grimness of Miller, the chest-thumping of Bukowski, the wood-grained melancholy of Carver.
Moses offers similarly precise answers when I ask about the bass-playing on Youth in Youth, its striking melodicism, its frequent role as lead instrument at the center of songs like “Anti-Decisions.” When I cite the song and its elastic closing bass riff, Moses self-deprecatingly replies, “That’s because there’s a really cool riff – but it only happens once, at the end.”
But Andy is quick to add, “At the show we played last night, when you were about to do it I saw people, like, pointing at you.” And indeed, later that night during the band’s performance at O’Brien’s Pub in Allston, Massachusetts an audience member gestures toward Moses during the part, hands raised in apparent appreciation.
Scott, handsome and boyish, resembles a young Truman Capote, and shares the author’s sharp, canny drollness. You sense that something wryly funny is always occurring to the bassist, that crafty mix of humor and self-deprecation. Yet his answers are thorough, and the young bassist works hard at pushing back against anything that even sort of sounds like ego.
“Well I didn’t play bass until I joined Annabel,” Scott says. “I played guitar. I don’t think I play guitar lines on the bass by any means, but I think I grew into being a bass player from a guitar standpoint. Just the way the guitars work in this band, or at least on this album, there was a lot of room to work with because the chords and riffs that were going on left a lot of melodic space. I didn’t set out to write any of those parts or think, ‘I’m going to solo on this track’. A lot of times it would just happen; I have the privilege of being handed the song and I get to work on the part after the song after is pretty much set. So I’m not at home saying, ‘This is a tight bass-line, we should use it’. Every time I write a bass line it’s in the context of a song that’s already in the motions.
“There’s definitely moments of glory for me on that record,” he offers, but then quickly adds: “but I don’t know”.
“A lot of them, we were demoing in the early stages of the record and I didn’t have any parts, really. For me I feel like my parts work in phases where I just start figuring out – ‘Show me the chord progression, the root notes’ – and I work from there. I’m not a music theorist by any means but I know how to harmonize and feel it out. But I also, in the process of recording that album, learned how to hold back sometimes, because the low notes function in just as important a way as a riff could. It just depends on where in the song and what everyone else is doing sonically: where in the mix does the bass need to be? Are the guitars low enough to where I can go high, or are they up high so I should be holding down the low-end? It’s just trying to fit in appropriately, lock down with Andy rhythmically. People do come up to me a lot, and I’m not just saying that, and are like ‘Dude your bass is crazy’. And I say ‘thank you’ [laughter]. I don’t know what to say! At least people are hearing the bass. I didn’t for a long time till I started playing the bass; that’s when bass-lines started standing out to me. If you’re not someone who’s playing bass or is just really into music, a lot of times you don’t even hear that. So the fact that people are hearing that is cool.”
Andy Hendricks, Ben’s younger brother, is similarly self-abnegating yet focused on clarifying his craft when I ask him about his design choices for the cover of Youth in Youth. Hendricks, like his older sibling, is resolutely kind yet focused on his answer. I ask the drummer about the suburban imagery of the album’s cover – washed-out, almost sepia images of two-story houses – and if the choice was a strict reflection of the album’s content.
“Kind of. I remember talking to Ben about it before I started the art, like ‘What is the overarching concept of the album’ and he was telling me about growing up, suburbs, that whole thing. I guess I took a different approach. I knew what Ben was going through, but I tried to zoom out a little bit and see it from a different perspective. So I went to the library, took a bunch of books out and went through pictures of suburbs. I wanted it to feel a little surreal though, not just a picture. I wanted it to feel like it was somewhere in time, so I threw textures on it and all that. When I do my artwork for anything I try to make it feel cohesive throughout the whole thing.”
I ask about a theme for Annabel’s overall visual aesthetic, which has largely maintained the hazy, pastels of Youth in Youth, if there has been a running motif.
“Recently yeah. At least for Annabel stuff. I guess if you look at all of our stuff together it looks cohesive, like it was done by the same hand, which it was [laughs].”
The band has recently wrapped up initial tracking for their full-length follow-up to Youth in Youth. The album was recorded with Into It. Over It. singer-songwriter Evan Weiss, who also recently helmed the startlingly assured sophomore album from Florida emo quintet You Blew It!. When I ask Ben and Andy about anything they’d learned from recording Youth, they cite Weiss as an example of things learned.
“I think that’s why we’re bringing in Evan, to focus the recording process a little bit more. Because I recorded half of Youth in Youth myself – I recorded all the guitars, all the keyboards, stuff like that – so I think being able to step away and just play as opposed to being involved in the recording will help me to be able to really get an idea of the big picture and the whole album itself and the songs themselves and fit it together better that way and be able to just step away from the songs more to look at them differently. And I guess make everything sound fuller. I wouldn’t say I would go back and change anything about Youth in Youth, but having more consistency through the recording process.”
“Kind of building on Youth in Youth,” Andy adds. “There were transitions in the songs, I think we want to do more with that, and make sure that each song leads into another. Make an album basically.”
Ben adds: “We’re just trying to expand our song writing a lot, just do what we do better … I think overall, the songs are stronger and more dynamic. I think that’s one thing we really wanted to focus on is different levels of what it is we do, different highs and lows, that sort of thing.”
Though it’s actually a song recorded for, and left off of, Youth in Youth, “Always” (a clever mirror-image to “Forever”), from the band’s split with Dowsing, happens to underline this taste for dynamics. Beginning with the sort of reedy, rock-steady strums that powered two and a half Promise Ring records, the song eventually fizzes to bursting, constantly arching upward in its short two minutes, resting for a bridge, leaping into an outro, easing out in a gentle haze. More compact and athletic than the theatrical Youth in Youth, you imagine it as the sort of thing they have in mind when they talk about “highs” and “lows.”
Indeed, when the band plays “Always” live, they lean into these shifts, exaggerating even more the sheer ground covered by the song in its brief runtime. But the real revelation comes in the way the band has turned Youth in Youth into a stunning, physical tour de force. The band begins with “Young American” and you realize what you’re seeing is a band that has spent enough time with this album to have internalized its subtle rhythms and emotional peaks. You realize just how athletic Andy Hendricks’ drum work is only as you watch him manage it while singing harmonies on half the songs. The song’s opening thrust of martial stomping climbs into its feral crescendo (“To be young!”) and you get the sense that the band has the shape of “Young American” memorized the way the San Antonio Spurs lock in pick-and-pops.
The same goes for the rest of Annabel’s quick, spry turn through Youth in Youth. Willis provides the throaty organ that lends Pet Sounds buoyancy to the bridge of “Anti-Decisions.” At times I watch the interplay of Willis and the elder Hendricks and realize just how much time this band has likely spent with Fugazi, how much they prize guitars that interweave like different colored spans of yarn. Annabel stay in motion throughout the set, almost subconsciously aware of the aerobic quality of Youth in Youth, the way that its volumes, tempos, and angles change with the minds and intentions of its protagonists. When the band, perfectly, closes with “Our Days Were Numbered,” Annabel leans into the songs final, Weezer-like crescendo with abandon, spiking that final refrain of “Forever” with gale-like force, the equivalent of a veteran actor well aware of how to read his last lines in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Afterward, the four members of the band can be found spread about the corner of Harvard Avenue and Cambridge Street. Each are having their own conversation, some with friends who’ve travelled hours to see them, others with new fans. In a perfect world someone reminds Scott Moses of his own bass-fill on “Anti-Decisions.” A few days later, the bronzed emo of “Always” and the combustible abandon of “Forever” arrive, both like final statements on the thoughtful opus that is Youth in Youth, and an early glimpse at a fresh start. And what could me more appropriate than two more Annabel songs, honed in on the beauty of mixed feelings?