Sunflower Bean are a trio of extremely young retro rockers from America, delivering their second album right on schedule: two years and two months after the first. Twentytwo In Blue hits our shelves and screens at the point that all three band members have reached the grand-old-age of 22. It’s worth bearing in mind just how young they were, writing these songs barely out of their teens, in a band that’s been active since they were all 17. We’ve seen quite a few acts with similar youth and dedication to the musical past over the last few years. I could argue these guys sit comfortably between Haim and The Lemon Twigs but, really, their circumstantial similarities don’t come across when you listen to the actual music, as tempting as it is to follow the old music-journalist trope of lumping bands together to aid a sweeping grand narrative. I’m fascinated, though, to see bands who weren’t even born the first time I bought an album, rejecting the palette of modern electronic pop music in favour of familiar sounds from their parent’s record collections, from when melody and musicianship seemed to be the vital and essential drivers of music culture.
Perhaps we’re seeing one potential outcome from a decade of readily available streaming music: when kids are given simultaneous access to 60-70 years of unfiltered pop music it’s a bit of a relief that they are not all instantly gravitating towards the newest, shiniest thing that’s bombarded at them through advertisements. Instead, kids like Sunflower Bean have been gorging themselves on a smorgasbord of seemingly disparate influences, allowing them to make fresh, original music which has an unprecedented depth of influence, without making them sound simply like a bunch of wannabes or copycats. It’s true that our parent’s record collections will always have a special resonance to us – that’s music that goes in by osmosis when we’re too small to even know what we’re listening to – but I’m suggesting streaming might give an aspiring musician greater opportunity to expand on those instinctual first influences than ever before. It certainly feels like that with Twentytwo In Blue, which is far more rich and detailed than you might expect, even though sometimes the references feel a little scatter-gun. This is a record that comes across as unfocussed at times, but it’s far better to have too many ideas than not enough.
The album opens with ‘Burn It’, a perfect slice of classic rock with a hint of glam to it, beautifully mixed by Jacob Portrait from Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It’s a thrilling ride which lands a solid sonic punch right in your guts. Crucially, Julia Cumming’s lead vocal has developed into a real tour-de-force on this album. Snarling with confidence and sass, she straddles the line between Suzi Quatro’s rock attitude and Stevie Nicks’ velvety seduction with ease, sounding great even when she allows herself to surrender technique to emotion. If the album had been made up of a dozen of these I’d have been made up. It’s a territory they do so well, and one that they do revisit, but first they take us on a bit of a journey, diverting us to a floatier space that’s far more Fleetwood Mac than T-Rex with ‘I Was A Fool’. ‘Twentytwo’ continues in a similar vein, with a melody and strings to match, that are reminiscent of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s. These are decent songs, and an ambitious scope to attempt, but to my ears they seem to lack the immediacy of the album opener.
Lead single ‘Crisis Fest’ gets us right back on track, as Cummings snarls about men in uniform storming in. It’s a song that’s undeniably influenced by the rise of Donald Trump, and the chaos and division that has been wrought through American culture over the last couple of years, but it doesn’t bog itself down with too specific a-lyric. Instead they tap into a Cold War-like sense of impending conflict and uncertain future, with some great lyrics. “There’s a coup in our country/ It’s happening now/ A coup in our city/ It’s happening downtown/ Every tragedy has its sad clown/ Every victory has its dark cloud”. If ever the youth of today needed a rallying cry to get behind it’s now, and this song could well help switch some from resigned apathy to open rebellion!
This album is a rare one for me, in that I find myself wanting to skip the slow songs to get to the fast ones when normally I’d do the opposite! It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the other material, but songs like ‘Burn It’, ‘Crisis Fest’, ‘Puppet Strings’ (whose drum intro sounds remarkably like a Gary Glitter record) and ‘Human For’ are so effective, I just find myself desperate for more. Elsewhere they explore territory that’s closer to The Velvet Underground, Simon & Garfunkel, and even The Smiths, with some pretty, jangly Johnny Marr-esque guitar playing. Even the strongest of these, like ‘Any Way You Like’, which makes great use of their potential for duetting shared vocals and clever arrangements, just sounds a bit slight in the company of such solid cuts. Ultimately, though, this could prove to be the strength of the album, as the less obvious songs fee like growers, especially as we draw to the album’s close. Penultimate number ‘Sinking Sands’ is a cleverly arranged pop song that’s so quick and so sharp you could miss it on the first couple of listens.
If we were to compare this side-by-side with some of the classic rock acts who inspired the band, I’m sure we’d find plenty of albums that have been constructed around one or two killer singles and then completed with filler. Twentytwo In Blue, although inconsistent, certainly keeps things interesting in the way it switches things up. I suspect the sequence of songs could have been tweaked to improve the overall impression. One thing that’s undeniable, though, when listening to this side-by-sde with their debut (sorry, Human Ceremony fans) is that it’s like they’ve travelled light years ahead. With this kind of trajectory I break out in a cold sweat when I try to imagine what they’re going to do next!