IT WOULD BE EASY to dismiss Sunflower Bean as post-vinyl-revival millennials co-opting sounds from earlier eras, as casually as if they were borrowing an older sibling's vintage cardigan. In fact, Human Ceremony—the Brooklyn trio's debut full-length on Fat Possum Records—earnestly wears its influences on that cardigan sleeve. Barely out of their teens, Sunflower Bean try on the postures and affectations of underground music spanning the past half-century. On the cover photo, singer/guitarist Nick Kivlen peers out with the aloof knowingness of Bringing It All Back Home-era Bob Dylan, complete with a shock of kinky-curly hair and surrounded by a veritable Pinterest page of clocks and flowers.
When you delve into the record, you hear influences like '60s psych rock, '80s indie, and the point where the two met in Paisley Underground bands like the Dream Syndicate. Kivlen admits certain eras rather than particular artists influence Sunflower Bean, and singer/bassist Julia Cumming says the band's songwriting process is collaborative. "[Nick] brings in a lot of different parts or riffs or songs in various states of doneness," she explains, "and we all kind of work on them."
Kivlen adds he has been playing with Sunflower Bean drummer, Jacob Faber, since high school. "I started writing some of my own songs," Kivlen says. "It seemed like an obvious fit for me and Jacob to start playing." Soon the duo became a trio with the addition of Cumming, and in 2015, Sunflower Bean released the Show Me Your Seven Secrets EP. The 2016 release of Human Ceremony led Rolling Stone to call Sunflower Bean New York's "coolest young band."
And Rolling Stone is right. Not all of Human Ceremony is pastiche—a lot of it is charming and engrossing on its own terms, standing up well to repeat listens, particularly album highlights like "2013." Propelled by a surf-rock backbeat, the song features Kivlen and Cumming's spacey call-and-response vocals (a device used repeatedly throughout the record with great effect) and Kivlen's heavenly guitar arpeggios. The guitar work carries much of the record, making an argument that Kivlen is one of the most exciting young guitarists in rock.
"When we first started the band, we had more of a garage-rock sound," Kivlen says, and that's borne out in the fuzzy opening power chords of "Come On." Inspired by guitarists like Johnny Marr and bands like Tame Impala, Kivlen soon began using his chorus pedal "pretty much all the time" as he aimed for a jangly melodic sound. On the opposite side of the spectrum, he also occasionally opts for what he calls a "dirty, gnarly tone," like the almost-metal soloing of "This Kind of Feeling" or the Sabbath-lite riff that punctuates "I Was Home."
Overall, the uneven but compelling Human Ceremony makes the statement that, in an era of what Kivlen calls limited attention spans, young rock musicians are still interested in making albums as cohesive works of art. On "2013," Cumming speak-sings in a delicate, ghostly soprano drenched in reverb: "What would if I told you you'd live to be 100?"
In the context of music, what do Sunflower Bean think we'll be talking about in 100 years? What about today's music will have a lasting influence?
Cumming answers with youth's unflinching optimism: "Songwriting."