New York trio Sunflower Bean broke through with single ‘I Was a Fool’ and have followed up with a rich and rewarding second album, ‘Twentytwo in Blue’. There’s a chemistry at work here between the band members that creates fizzing pop-rock; it’s more instantly attractive than their well-received first album ‘Human Ceremony’.
Nick Kivlen on guitars and vocals is serious in a way that reflects his young Bob Dylan good looks and dextrous ’60s/’70s guitar workouts. Julia Cumming uses her bouncing bass and classically-trained voice to drive many of the melodies. And it’s melody that’s at the heart of this uplifting album. Tune after tune hits the mark, with the first four songs rushing from one high to another.
Poetry takes over in ‘Memoria’ as Cumming cleverly forces her words to fit the metre and tune. As shown on ‘Twentytwo’, effectively the album’s title track, she’s no stranger to literature, singing “I do not go quietly into the night’ in an echo of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. Like Thomas, she is pondering mortality but isn’t quite at the stage that she must “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. There’s more hope in her universe: “If I could do it, I would stay young for you”….“I could stay here and write a thousand songs/ Just to show her that the stars / Still come out behind the fog / There’s a light on in the lighthouse.”
Sunflower Bean throw optimism drawn from US west coast pop-rock influences into the test tube with an edgy east coast New York neurosis to create catchy sad songs with the flair of ‘Rumours’/‘Tusk’-era Fleetwood Mac. Intelligence is the catalyst and the result is at its most potent in the alternating vocals of Cumming and Kivlen on ‘I Was a Fool’. Her singing occasionally soars on this stand-out track, as on the buzzing ‘Puppet Strings’ and the soliloquy-like ‘Only A Moment’, which has the feel of a big show-stopper from musical theatre until Kivlen swaps his atmospherics for a slide guitar in the bridge.
The band’s chemistry still sparks when Kivlen’s singing comes to the fore on the last three tracks on the album, with Cumming joining in on choruses. Memories of Lou Reed bubble out of Kivlen’s New York drawl. ‘Any Way You Like’ turns into a country-pop duet, as Kivlen’s guitar fuses a C&W twang with a neurotic New York melody and cutting chords, while drums from Jacob Faber build from gentle tambourine to rolling pop. It’s largely Faber’s sticks that give many of the tracks their glam-rock feel, starting with ‘Burn It’ and including the political rallying call ‘Crisis Fest’ (called ‘Glam Jam’ in early setlists) and T. Rex-ish ’Puppet Strings’. “I need the sound of the drums, the drum, the drum,” Cumming sings on the anti-evangelical ‘Human For’, in a strange post-new-wave echo of ‘Great DJ’ by The Ting Tings.
Faber can also play like a percussionist from a ’60’s girl band through the prism of ‘End of the Century’ by Ramones, as on ‘Only A Moment’. Likewise, Kivlen fuses glam rock guitar playing with styles from previous and later decades — ‘Crisis Fest’ features new wave riffing and NYC twisting, and ‘Sinking Sands’ has a Blondie-like hook after Modern Lovers strumming and Byrds-ish doodling. On ‘Oh No, Bye Bye’, acoustic Velvet Underground guitar (with Cumming’s bass cut from the same cloth) transforms into a Television twirl. The track is the album’s intelligent farewell, a stomping finale that ends with the words: “it’s over now, over now, over now, over now”.
Pics: Ian Bourne
‘Twentytwo in Blue’ is out now via Lucky Number. Here’s the tracklist:
01. ‘Burn It’
02. ‘I Was a Fool’
04. ‘Crisis Fest’
06. ‘Puppet Strings’
07. ‘Only A Moment’
08. ‘Human For’
09. ‘Any Way You Like’
10. ‘Sinking Sands’
11. ‘Oh No, Bye Bye’