My introduction to Sunflower Bean came in March of 2015 via late-night text from a friend who had just seen them perform. She wrote that I “would really like this band,” and she was right. I ordered their EP Show Me Your Seven Secrets and was stoked to see it came with a handwritten thank you note (it’s the little things)! I really enjoyed their take on psychedelic rock. It sounded fresh, but familiar. They weren’t trying to just mine one particular era, and it was nice to hear music that didn’t mimic the blown-out garage aesthetic of their contemporaries, but rather incorporated many different aspects of the genre used by bands that came before them.
Fast-forward to a few months later, and the band I’m in, Best Coast, ended up booked on the same show as Sunflower Bean in Paris, France. Their live set was more heavy and rocking than their EP, and inspired Best Coast to bust out a short Black Sabbath cover during our encore. After the show, we bonded with the band over food and Gibson Firebird/Thunderbirds. We’ve since toured together, and they’ve even crashed at my house. Needless to say, I was predisposed to like their new record, but I wasn’t prepared for how amazing it was gonna be.
Sophomore albums can be tricky. You want to show growth sonically as songwriters and musicians without straying too far from your established sound. Sunflower Bean’s new album, Twentytwo in Blue, succeeds on both fronts.
The album opens with two slices of classic pop-rock. Opener “Burn It Down” recalls the bounce of the Fleetwood Mac jammer “Think About Me.” Guitarist/vocalist Nick Kivlen does some nice Lindsey Buckingham runs throughout, and his console guitar’s tone directly mirrors Tusk.
Beginning with the opening drum fill and continuing with Nick’s guitar work, it’s hard not to compare the second song, “I Was a Fool,” to the standout track on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, “Dreams.” The dueling vocals between Nick and vocalist/bassist Julia Cumming provide an alternate glimpse of what “Dreams” would have been like if Lindsey had sung on the track, the wordless vocal melody at the end even mirroring Stevie’s closing vocal.
“Twentytwo” (named for the age of each of the three band members) starts off like a Judee Sill ballad before opening up into a beautiful piece of melancholic pop. Julia’s voice is really on another level. This record is full of so many great layered vocal melodies.
There is a sonic sheen throughout the record that feels like a natural progression from their previous record, Human Ceremony. Songs like “Crisis Fest” and “Human For” find the band in more familiar territory, recalling the more psych, post-glam rock & roll of their previous releases, but with more force and clarity, thanks in large part to producers Matt Molnar (from the late, great band Friends) and Jacob Portrait (from Unknown Mortal Orchestra; he also mixed the record).
“Memoria” is lovely dream pop in the truest sense. The light breeziness on this track makes you feel good to be alive and just experiencing something, anything. It’s awesome to hear Jacob’s driving motorik drumming in this setting. His krautrock-inspired feel is still in place, but becomes something else when heard in the context of these pop songs.
“Puppet Strings” opens up with a groove similar to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky.” Unlike that song’s laid-back, spiritual feeling, this is more of a propulsive rocker, with lyrics conveying dismay over a love that feels unappreciated.
“Only a Moment” blindsided me in the best possible way. One could argue this is the emotional centerpiece of the record. It’s unlike anything the band has done before, but still feels totally them. It’s a beautiful, reverb-soaked ballad which packs a punch, thanks in large part to the heavy drumming and Julia’s fuzzed-out bass, Nick provides a lovely understated solo that has a haunting quality not unlike Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk.” It’s the kind of song you could easily spend the day listening to on repeat if you felt down or heartbroken.
The album’s other ballad, “Any Way You Like,” opens with some modulated baritone guitar (or is it a Bass VII?). It establishes an immediate vibe similar to Tommy James’s “Crimson and Clover.” The vocal interplay between Nick and Julia is great, and includes some vocal harmonies that have the sound and feel of classic Mamas and the Papas.
“Sinking Sands” is an uptempo song with ’70s-era flat drum sounds and layered electric/acoustic guitars and keys. Nick also sings one of my favorite lyrics in recent memory: “He was thinking in Comic Sans,” which is incredibly funny to me.
The album concludes with the appropriately named “Oh No, Bye Bye.” Eleven songs never went by so quickly. It ends with some awesome guitar work that would be right at home next to some Lindsey Buckingham Tusk-era demos, just as on the beginning of the record.
I wish they went on for much longer. This is the kind of album that when it’s over, you are ready to start it again. The credit for that goes to the varied songwriting and composition, and to the producers for giving each song its own unique sonic space to live in. In spite of the variety, the record never feels like a collection of random songs thrown together, but a well thought-out, fully realized work. I can’t wait to talk to the band about this record—are all my West Coast references totally off the mark? These songs were written in the dead of a New York winter, but they feel so sunny and alive. A perfect soundtrack for the coming months.