Sunflower Bean’s second album, Twentytwo in Blue, crystallizes their position as a band you need to know about. There’s a small chance this endless gray winter has made their sun-dried rock sound even more attractive to the ear, but I doubt it – this album is going to be as fun in July, and then November, as it is today.
This is all to say that while the name Sunflower Bean is initially a little precious, it turns out to be quite apt for the imagery conjured up by their music. The songs on this record contain all of the optimism tinged with melancholy, as well as the warmth and shaggy spontaneity of a summer’s day, a day on which you might spot the titular flower and stop to smell it. The 11 tracks barrel along, letting you ride the waves of fuzzy guitar and propulsive percussion, all topped with clear and evocative vocals.
The album begins excellently with a trio of instant hits, starting with “Burn It,” a song that begins with the aforementioned guitar and percussion that instantly leads you into a romp of a song, in which Julia Cumming’s ability to sing spiritedly above the distorted soundscape is allowed to shine. The next two songs veer in another direction, with “I Was A Fool” sliding in after “Burn It” with a quick drum intro that’s reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” and comparatively delicate guitar work behind the plaintive alternating vocals of Cumming and guitarist Nick Kivlen. The third song in the trifecta, “Twentytwo” begins even more delicately than “I Was A Fool,” but starts to soar shortly after. The vocal ability of Cumming – controlled but loose, soft but hard – is one of the main attractions of the album and it really shines on “Twentytwo,” with her repeated delivery of “I do not go quietly into the night that calls me” underlining the inner strength and spine that runs through the song, as well as the entire album.
The remaining eight tracks of the album volley between the moods established in the first three. “Crisis Fest” – a song inspired by what drummer Jacob Faber accurately labeled in Paste as a “shit show” of an presidential administration – gets back to the rollicking fire of “Burn It,” with added chants you can sing along to yourself. “Puppet Strings” and “Human For” continue that hot streak, injecting enough energy and attitude into the album in-between the more introspective songs, a pattern that lends itself to the enjoyable experience the album creates.
“Memoria” and “Only A Moment” mine more of that melancholic tone introduced in “I Was A Fool” and “Twentytwo,” with Cumming’s voice lending itself again to memorable choruses and getting coated in just enough effect and reverb to match the dash of psych-rock influence threaded through every Sunflower Bean song, that helps to make their music so dreamy and just a bit intangible. “Any Way You Like” is a particularly psych-rock throwback kind of song, with Cumming and Kivlen trading vocals again and occasionally referencing classic rock songs of the ‘60s that sound like contemporaries to this track (they sing “time is on your side,” “you can drive my car” – perhaps accidental nods to the Stones and Beatles, but it feels appropriate even if it’s a coincidence).
The album as a whole feels very intuitive, as it trades off between rock jams and more introspective, dreamy soundscapes. It’s all immediate, and outside of Cumming’s voice being one of the main attractions, the other might be the band’s near-expert skill at creating phrases that are going to worm their way into your head within one or two listens and refuse to leave until you listen to that entire song again. Each track largely depends on a key refrain, which Cumming or Kivlen sing repeatedly – finding different moods to express each time – and which, with the help of the surprisingly (for three people) layered and full instrumentation, creates a sort of vortex of music that sucks you in completely and pleasurably.
The second half of the album occasionally wears you down ever-so-slightly, because that many vortexes can be a little tiring, but the album rewards multiple listens and will most likely especially reward actual warm weather and open space once those things are finally available to us again. Cumming, Kivlen and Faber have gained a little more notoriety with this album release, and it is fully deserved. If you’re looking for new music and new bands to support, you would be missing quite a lot by skipping Sunflower Bean.