I was a little disappointed with Sunflower Bean’s debut Human Ceremony in 2016, although strangely not because of the album itself. Seeing the Brooklyn based youngsters move from Sabbath worship and referencing Tame Impala on their first EP the year prior to Human Ceremony’s mix of retro rhythms, guitarist/singer Nick Kivlen and bassist/singer Julia Cumming trading lines and the frankly epic range of guitar tones on show was a compelling listen. The reviews were positive, but the band didn’t really blow up to the degree I’d expected, and indeed hoped that they would. But the kids went on the road, touring quite literally for the rest of the year before returning home, wearied but wisened having, as Bon Jovi so modestly put it, ‘seen a million faces, and rocked them all’ to compose a follow-up. And now, after even more touring and high-profile support slots to test drive the new tunes, Twentytwo arrives and is, undoubtedly, an improvement on Human Ceremony in almost every way.
Ironically then, Twentytwo In Blue has quite the bone to pick with the world at large, turning its sights on the state of politics in America in amongst the songs of love and getting older. Rousing opener Burn It is chiefly concerned with the former issue though, with a strutting glam-rock rhythm courtesy of Julia’s weaving basslines and drummer Jacob Faber laying into his kit like it’s spilled his pint, while Cumming shouts ‘this town, I’ll burn it to the ground’ over Kivlen’s sharp guitar licks. Lead single I Was A Fool feels like the cousin of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, another hip-swaying bassline underpins the distant guitar chords as the two singers take turns with the hooks. There’s a knowing melancholy in the instrumentation that seems to have come with age, it’s certainly welcome here. If I was A Fool is a lament, then by contrast Twentytwo is a celebration. Yet another strong vocal performance from Julia really carries the song, the chorus in particular, with a superb sing-along melody of ‘I do not go quietly into the night that calls me, even when I’m alone’ is a standout moment. Whether because of a year of singing live or a desire to experiment, Cumming seems to have really found her voice on the album and she has all the attitude of Cherie Currie by way of Stevie Nicks; essentially, she sounds great, and following singe Crisis Fest is no exception.
The most confrontational and political track here (best line: ‘2017 we know/ reality’s one big, sick show’) feels like another rallying cry with a rocking guitar solo and crashing cymbals, Julia digging into her guitar and exclaiming, ‘We brought you into this place/you know we can take you out’ in the chorus. Memoria is about as close as Twentytwo gets to the introspective shoe gazing of Human Ceremony. Lush guitar chords and arpeggios wrapped around steady drum fills and lyrics that echo, ‘The past is the past for a reason’. Meanwhile, Puppet Strings has more than a little of Marc Bolan’s boogie guitar style in the jaunty groove that the band build on; Nick and Julia’s vocal interplay at its best as they take turns with verses and choruses before a fuzzy guitar break ushers in the outro. Then there’s Only A Moment, which is a softly swinging ballad just past the half way mark of the album. The whole track is drenched in even more reverb than usual, making the drum hits sound vast and the vocals sound like they’re being sung from the far side of a concert hall. Safe to say it’s common knowledge now that reverb can be (and sometimes is) a crutch for some bands, but here it suits the retro feel of the record rather well and that probably has something to do with Jacob Portrait (of Unknown Mortal Orchestra fame) being the co-producer.
Any Way You Like is another spacey ballad, but without as much forlornness in the lyrics it comes across as being a bit too, well, spacey. I do like the loud/soft dynamics in Human For though, so that every explosion of woolly guitar and bass and thundering drums feels even more thrilling. The closing 1-2 of Sinking Sands and Oh No, Bye Bye take things in more of a Velvety, Underground-y direction. The former has that distinctive lilt in its rhythm that evokes the sounds of ‘that one with the banana’ and the male/female vocals only fuel the comparisons, while the latter’s combination of acoustic and electric guitars gives it a glorious late 60’s twang, and there’s a lovely turn in the lyrics that point towards something more hopeful after all the talk of crises and protests. ‘It’d be a shame if the end did come in sight/ but at least we would have each other/ And I think it would be alright.’
Twentytwo In Blue finds that elusive sweet-spot between the miserable and the joyous. The move from the psych of the 60’s to the anthems of the 70’s has been a smart one, and the band have made it in style. I said before that every aspect of Sunflower Bean’s music is improved on with Twentytwo and it really is, my only hope for the band now is that this will be the album that gets Bean the recognition they deserve. Most likely to be the best band in New York? Right on.