REVIEW: Sunflower Bean - Human Ceremony

Laura Kerry

Of the many wells to draw musical material from, the past is a particularly rich one. Even at 19 and 20 years old, with not much of a span of past themselves, the members of Brooklyn’s Sunflower Bean exploit that resource brilliantly. A guitar, bass, and drum trio, the band plays rock ‘n’ roll that needs few other genre qualifications—throwing The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, The Cure, a hint of Black Sabbath, and other rock touchstones together in Human Ceremony, a debut full-length of dynamic tunes that its creators call “night music.”

Making up for the lack of life history, the trio seems beyond its years. In photos and videos that have already gained traction in press ranging from the New York Times to Vogue, Jacob Faber (who looks like a baby-faced Frank Zappa), Nick Kivlen (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Bob Dylan), and Julia Cumming (whose look earned her a gig modeling for a rock-infused high-fashion brand), carry themselves with a relaxed coolness. And it reflects in their album.

This easiness of self-possession, though, does not translate to sluggishness; Human Ceremony is constantly in forward motion, from the tight and propulsive tunes to the fact that Sunflower Bean recorded them in just seven days. This is a group, after all, that was named Oh My Rockness’s hardest-working band for playing 50 shows in 2014. Many of their songs, from “I Was Home” (“What did you do today? / Didn’t do much today”) to “Wall Watcher” (“What’s it like in your apartment when no one has called you?”), take on restlessness and urgency both in theme and mood. “Right now, I’m on the edge of my seat,” Cumming sings in “Come On. “I know what it means to me / I know that I need to go faster.”

But not everything in Human Ceremony is driving drum fills and big, ‘70s-style guitar licks. Led by Cumming’s clear, floating voice, Sunflower Bean excels in quieter moments, too. In the poppier “Easier Said,” the band proves itself a good match for a sunny outdoor stage on a summer festival route, while the light guitar picking on “Oh, I Just Don’t Know” shows that it’s capable of the kind of tortured introspection of The Velvet Underground’s “Jesus.” From the dreamy psychedelic twirls of the guitar on “This Kinda Feeling” to the shimmering keys on the Smiths-like “I Want You To Give Me Enough Time,” the album headbangs along, but it breathes when it needs to.

Drawing on the past but leaning forward, Sunflower Bean has situated its debut album squarely in the present. In the interplay of Cumming’s light voice trading off with Kivlen’s gravellier one and Faber’s crisp drumming, the trio’s chemistry is the kind that leaves you no choice but to fully dwell in the moment of listening (particularly, it’s easy to imagine, in a live setting). Here’s hoping that means at least 50 more shows in 2016 and a whole lot more history for the band.