It now takes a certain amount of bravery to accept the cliches of rock music within underground music and can often lead to a backlash of ‘Led Zeppelin did this years ago’. It’s an old joke, but the sarcastic ‘The indie is mainstream now so mainstream must be indie’ might actually apply to the classic rock and pop characteristics that Sunflower Bean deploy on Human Ceremony. But the difference is, the do it well. There’s elements of Captured-Tracks-Dream-Pop bleeding in, especially on ‘2013’ and ‘Easier Said’ as well as the hard-rock influences that follow Nick Kivlen, Julia Cumming and Jacob Faber everywhere on ‘Wall Watcher’ and ‘I Was Home’. It might be another case of the trendy New York band who dress impeccably that make any criticism unimportant in the face of good pop songs (Think of Sunflower Bean as the children of Sonic Youth and the Strokes). They have an effortless cool, which pretty much comes with the tag of ‘New York’, but it isn’t the cool which makes Human Ceremony such a good listen, it’s some solid writing.
The most noticeable absence is the thick sludgy rock which their early singles delivered. ‘Tame Impala’, most likely everyone’s first experience of Sunflower Bean, is absent, and the noisy outro to the original ‘I Want You To Give Me Enough Time’ single is missing completely. Considering how good that song was originally, it’s a shame that it cuts off so abruptly, but there’s some pockets of Human Ceremony which will hopefully satisfy any Black Sabbath fan. ‘Wall Watcher’ is as heavy as they come, locking into a psychedelic groove with Julia Cumming, bassist, taking the vocal reins over Nick Kivlen, who often shares lines through heavy effects on his voice. We didn’t exactly like ‘Wall Watcher’ as it arrived as a single, but the song is definitely a grower and the handclap-assisted chorus is catchy and creepy at the same time. Cumming’s vocals suit the dreamier songs, but there’s no ‘Tame Impala’-esque screamer for her to really explode vocally. The lyrics are suitably space and religion-obsessed, which lends itself to this ’60s-ish lyrical style which is a refreshing set of themes as everyone wants to hear about aliens. Where are all the alien songs, musicians?
One of those alien songs is ‘Space Exploration Disaster’, which meshes together the hard-rock and dream-pop elements as Kivlen murmurs ‘Float away from the planet’ and opens with ‘In the year 2013 / No-one can hear you scream’, which is a funny contrast to the usual space-loneliness cliche in exchange for an even lonelier place – Earth. Often Sunflower Bean have some creepy lyrics like the one just mentioned hiding in the darker corners of Human Ceremony, such as the ‘always-watching’ of ‘Wall Watcher’ or the title track, which Nick Kivlen said was what aliens would call our lives if they saw us in a recent interview. Sometimes, the simpler tracks just work much better, which is a pleasant surprise after thinking that Sunflower Bean couldn’t do anything other than psych-rock. ‘Human Ceremony’ or the excellent ‘Easier Said’ allow Sunflower Bean to explore a more dream-pop sound with simpler lyrics like ‘It’s not your fault / And that’s ok / Easier said than done’, which shows that Sunflower don’t have to be talking about aliens and stomping on the distortion pedal to succeed. It’s easily one of our favourite songs of 2016 so far.
There was always the chance that Sunflower Bean wouldn’t live up to the hype, and the point that Human Ceremony isn’t underwhelming might be to do with the British music press not having too much access to the band and thus hyping them up (Think Peace for the case in point). It’s just a really good debut that isn’t a spur of the moment trend-release, but Sunflower Bean have taken their time to tighten up their playing and songwriting. They aren’t afraid of making a song about aliens, the future or religion (Often all in the same song) and they aren’t afraid to stick a guitar solo on a song. The most assured debut since Wolf Alice’s My Love Is Cool.
Funnel Recommends: Human Ceremony / 2013 / Easier Said