Sunflower Bean Prove The Kids Are Alright With Twentytwo In Blue
Sunflower Bean Prove The Kids Are Alright With Twentytwo In Blue
Julia Cumming makes me feel like a 10 year old boy again, and not in the obvious, burgeoning adolescent way you’re thinking of. I discovered Debbie Harry and Blondie when I was around that age, and alongside the bashful crush I was developing on her, I was discovering a wider world of interesting music. Already a Beatles fan, having listened to just about every one of their albums about one hundred times already with my parents (who were obviously big fans), I, without realizing it, (and definitely not being able to articulate it) was beginning to look for something more hopeful and contemporary sounding. The Beatles were great, but they made me sad, as I knew that what I was listening to was all I was going to get from them. There would be no new Beatles music. Blondie on the other hand was in the throes of megastardom and producing new music almost yearly.
They were young, Debbie Harry was a badass, and their sound was unique and, at many times, hopeful, if not at least bursting with youthful energy. It also had the rock sound that The Beatles had (and that I loved, and still love), but sounded new and fresh at the same time. Sunflower Bean, with their equally badass frontwoman and contemporary yet retro tinged sound, make new and fresh yet solidly recognizable rock that recalls, and exceeds, fellow New York City hometowners Blondie at their height, talent wise if not necessarily sound wise.
With all members of Sunflower Bean being only 22 years old, and this musically talented, as well as this insightful and progressive lyrically, they prove, with their sophomore album Twentytwo in Blue, that not only are the kids alright, but their future, and in turn that of popular rock music, is still pretty darn bright.
I refer to Sunflower Bean’s members, Julia Cumming (vocals, bass), Nick Kivlen (lead guitar, vocals) and Jacob Faber (drums) as “kids” affectionately, and a bit enviously. Certainly individuals a little over half my age might easily and thoughtlessly get referred to as “kids” by old timers like me, but just as enviously and affectionately. While there is much in America, and the world, that is fucked up right now, it is still is an exciting time to be alive and young (as well as actively middle aged). This is strikingly and fluently reflected in Sunflower Bean’s music. They speak directly to concerns and conflicts that the generation just coming of age, and power, are facing. “You’ve been in school for ten years now/80 grand indebted down/Every day’s a missile test/Your dancing shoes and torn up dress” sings Julia on “Crisis Fest,” a standout track off the album that manages to address the insanity in The White House, the insanity of the cost of an education, and the insanity of possible nuclear annihilation in a scant few verses more concisely than just about anyone in pop culture is doing right now. There’s little if any of the doom and gloom that afflicted my generation (Generation X) here though: “Fate can pick you up/You know that it can put you down/If you hold us back, you know that we can shout/We brought you into this place, you know we can take you out!” Gen X might have re-ignited the age of music with a message that fueled activism, but it looks like The Millenials will be finishing the job and pushing the necessary change through.
“Crisis Fest” isn’t the only place on Twentytwo in Blue where Sunflower Bean address the question of contemporary politics, both those of the national and personal kind. On “Human For,” another hard rocking entry on the album, Julia sings “I don’t need your religion/I don’t need your protection/I don’t need you to fit in/I need the sound of the drums, the drums.” Methinks that the “sound of the drum” is the sound of the drumbeat of her own heart, i.e. that she’s advocating the “marching to the beat of one’s own drum” and heart. There is nothing new here, except that it is being said in a new and interesting way. Every generation has its own unique way of saying what it needs to say, often times repeating what a previous generation has already said or discovered.
This restating of a declaration of independence occurs in every generation, but it really only achieves attention or relevance when said generation discovers how to say it in a new way. The one who re-declares this independence is usually saddled with the label of “spokesman (or woman) of a generation.” Kurt Cobain became (one of) the spokesmen for his generation with “I found it hard/It’s hard to find/Oh well, whatever never mind.” Has this generation found it with “We brought you into this place/You know we can take you out!”? Time will only tell for sure.
Something that is definite, as well as obvious, right now though, is that like my childhood crush Debbie Harry’s band, and like my teen-angst co-comiserator Kurt Cobain’s, Sunflower Bean has most deftly, out of their generational peers, managed to capture the perfect blend of a couple different genres of rock and pop music and made it their own. They’ve done this in a way that recalls a few different times in the ages of rock while simultaneously looking forward. Blondie managed to marry punk and disco. Nirvana married punk and metal. Sunflower Bean has married New Wave and classic rock. Their sound is at times light and airy (“Twentytwo”) and at others crunchingly heavy (“Human For”), yet at all times pristine, clean, and grounded in the also rock of ages old trinity of guitar, bass, and drum. Every song features the type of guitar and drum work that belies a band of their age, both figuratively and literally. Julia’s voice rides over top of this hybridization of New Wave guitar and classic rock with a similar deftness that belies her experience, as well as her past performances. Her voice is stronger, deeper, higher, and lower whenever it needs be here on Twentytwo In Blue in ways it never was on Human Ceremony. It’s astounding that that album came out only a scant two years ago when one considers the progression made here.
It’s that kind of insightful and concise lyrical progression, as well as songwriting progression, that gives Sunflower Bean the prerequisites necessary to be considered a generational defining type of band. The Beatles, Blondie, and Nirvana all were doing something that was being done by others performing alongside them, they just managed to do it, say it, and sound it out, in a way that coalesced the spirit of what their young (and tuned in middle aged) peers were also feeling and thinking most eloquently. It might be a little early to yoke Sunflower Bean to the label of “voice of a generation,” but it happened to Nirvana with the advent of their second album. If there is any constant in the world of music, politics, and history though, it’s that it often repeats.