If you’re going to make something new and different, you might to have to kill your idols first.
Such a task is precisely what Brooklyn (where else?) trio Sunflower Bean – comprised of guitarist and vocalist Nick Kivlen, bassist and vocalist Julia Cumming, and drummer Jacob Faber – set out to achieve on their debut album. In their case, exorcising the past requires assuming the forms that made them want to be musicians in the first place. And it’s worth mentioning that they’re attempting it amid the hype blizzard that engulfs a young NYC band every three to five months like clockwork.
It’s too early to say whether or not the trio will perish in said hype – most do – but Human Ceremony makes a flimsy case for their continued survival. It’s not a bad album, strictly speaking, but it’s not a particularly intriguing one either. It’s an amalgamation of the inspirations you’d expect three cookie cutter cool 20-year-olds to love and use, reframed for urgency and stretched across eleven tracks. It’s no coincidence that Kivlen tames his curls à la Bob Dylan, Cumming’s style is equal parts Debbie Harry and Courtney Love, and Faber could be mistaken for a member of the Grateful Dead circa 1969.
Too bad it’s no longer 1969. In 2016, Sunflower Bean’s punk-ish dream pop sounds stale and overworked. When you use this pedal, your guitar makes this cool jangly sound. We get it. Johnny Marr has been around for a while. So have the Kinks for that matter. Enough already.
Ugh, whatever. Psych is sooooo hot right now, and Sunflower Bean could be worse offenders. Several cuts from Human Ceremony manage to reach for being more than the sum of their parts, starting with the raucous “Come On.” Here the ever-present jangle grows a set of fangs and rages forth with youthful enthusiasm, met halfway by some jumpy keys. The melancholic “2013” follows, wallowing in its own paper thin woes but also exhibiting a sense of structure well beyond the group’s years. To wit: the band finish the cut with a last-minute metal explosion, the bass-driven drama of the previous three minutes ripped away to release a exhilarating Sabbath-esque outro.
But “2013” is a good song on paper alone. On the record, “Easier Said” sounds better, poignant and striking if a little too ready to resemble The Cure. Still it finds the band grasping for musical individuality, which is a rare enough occurrence within Human Ceremony that each instance (see also: the phenomenal “Space Exploration Disaster”) deserves recognition.
Sunflower Bean needed to kill their darlings, but did the evidence of said murders need to be recorded, mastered and released? Human Ceremony is a decent album with a handful of decent songs, a handful of duds, and a handful of slightly above average tunes. But scratch away any initial enjoyment, the obtuse explorations of religious questions, and the laundry list of influences, and it’s hollow. In essence, Sunflower Bean made a record about everyone else: The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Pavement, Hole, Pixies. Even Blur’s “Tender” comes to mind within the first seconds on “Oh, I Just Don’t Know.”
In doing so, the record inadvertently argues that sometimes new is better. Or if not better, then more intriguing, more exciting, or at the very least, easier to forgive.
Nevertheless, expect to see them around for a while. So it goes with this level of hype.