Review: Sunflower Bean – Twentytwo In Blue

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Stale Sophomore

Almost two years and two months after the release of their debut album, New York trio Sunflower Bean return at the ripe old age of twenty-two, with their sophomore effort: Twentytwo in Blue.

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The name Sunflower Bean first became familiar to me after the release of their debut, Human Ceremony, was praised by music review juggernaut NME; however, despite this guilty-by-association setback, the album was a pleasant surprise. Within the confines of an alt-rock world at breaking point with 3-chord Oasis wannabes, the emergence of something different was always going to be welcomed with open arms. Now, amongst the emergence of other interesting acts from the same world (the likes of Snail Mail and Vagabon),  Sunflower Bean are back for another embrace with the dreary listener. This time, however, the arms are closed.

Twentytwo in Blue is not a terrible album, but it’s rife with the same issues that plague the bands we saw Sunflower Bean as being an escape from. Perhaps the most grating of these issues is the oxymoron between inconsistency and repetition, I’d call it impressive to achieve such a contradiction if not for the fact it dulls the album like dirt and dust dulls a knife.

It’s in seeking themes and reasons that inconsistency enters the fray. There’s little to string the album together. The songs deal with break ups (and again, and again, and again), paranoid best friends and millennial uprising. What is there to tie up these thematic links? Bar the numbing repetitive structure to their instrumentation, there’s very little. To say that this is jarring is quite the understatement – it’s difficult to escape the feeling of being thrown from one end to the other with such stark transitions.

The dastardly companion to this bemusing feature is repetition. Instrumentation is made up almost entirely of the standard guitar-drum-bass combination, which is no bad thing by necessity, unless those three instruments perform the same function in the same way on every song. A simple juddering along of the same few chords permeates the majority of the album, and it seems that in order to maintain their relevance, the players wanted a slither of the spotlight – or rather, solos. Once again, this is no bad thing, yet they seem to crop up in enough songs that even these centre-stage spots seem to merge into the fold of the rest of the album – perhaps if they ever extended themselves to do something interesting with their big moments, this would be an issue, but alas, these moments are almost as mundane as the support to vocals that preceded them.

It’s clear that the band are influenced by the past. The structure of album opener ‘Burn It’ for instance feels as if it comes straight from the 1970s. Furthermore, lead singer Julia Cumming displays the swaying and distinct vocal performance that we’ve seen feature in the likes of other distinct voices like Morrissey, Bowie and Siouxsie. As pleasant as this can be at points, and as successfully as we’ve seen other bands take from the same era (see King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard for one), it’s frustrating that this influence fits into the confines of repetitive rambling that’s prior been mentioned.

I’m convinced that somewhere in the album, there’s a much better album to be found (or at least an EP). The nauseating repetition would surely not be such an issue had they cut down the length of some of the tracks. On songs such as ‘Burn It’ and ‘Memoria’ – it seems they reach the two-minute mark, with no idea of where to go, and repeat the two minutes, leading to a four-minute slog that nobody wants to hear. The album’s forty-minute length is inarguably overkill – as though they considered a tighter and likely more enjoyable half-hour to be a failure in their pursuits.

What’s most frustrating is the talent that clearly exists within the band. Human Ceremony, whilst not perfect, was a breath of fresh air – yet their sophomore simply doesn’t rise above the current wave of lookalikes and pretenders that already over-saturate the market. There’s genuine enjoyment to be found in certain areas here. Softer, acoustic driven tracks like ‘Twenty-Two’ and ‘Only for a Moment’ are both huge improvements on the rest of the album. The slower tempo allows for more consistent pace and tighter instrumentation, accompanied as well with flourishing orchestral instrumentation to make for pleasant listening. Furthermore, the eighth track ‘Human For’ returns to the more fast-paced and electric sound that the band are so keen on for most of the album, yet is handled with far more care, lacking the repetition and clumsy lyricism that comes through the rest of the album (what a coincidence that it also falls in at just over two-and-a-half minutes).

It’s difficult to not feel disappointed with this second effort from Sunflower Bean. It certainly falls short of its predecessor and lags even further behind other artists trying to break into the indie-rock game. However, whilst this isn’t really worth returning to listen to more than once (if you really want to go through it once), there’s just a small glimmer of what the band is capable of and we can at least approach future releases with hope of better output.

Twentytwo in Blue is out March 23rd via Lucky Number Music 

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