Human Ceremony

Sunflower Bean

Fat Possum Records, 2016

http://sunflowerbean.bandcamp.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/17/2016

The Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac, the Jayhawks, the Subways, Arcade Fire… these are just a few of the notable bands of the past 50 years that have paired and contrasted male and female vocalists up front to great effect. New York power trio Sunflower Bean appears to have aspirations to join that list, and maybe someday they will.

The key, of course, is that you need a pair of voices up front that complement one another supernaturally well, and arrangements that play to their strengths. This trio—Nick Kivlen on guitar and vocals, Julia Cumming on bass and vocals, and Jacob Faber on drums—has a lot going for it, but also some lessons still to learn.

One of those is about focus and flow. Genre-hopping is fun, for sure, and can be energizing when it works. But there has to be some sort of creative thread around which the music is organized, and you have to pay careful attention to flow, or the end result can easily veer into chaos. And indeed, Human Ceremony feels rather chaotic, jumping in just the first three tracks from female-dominated dream-pop (“Human Ceremony”) to bouncy punk-pop (“Come On”) to new-wave influenced psychedelia (“2013”).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Each track has its moments—Cumming has a lovely voice and upbeat cuts like “Come On” have more than a little Go-Gos-ish drive. The main issue is that when Kivlen comes in with his vocals, it sometimes feels like he’s guesting from another group entirely. Where Cumming’s voice is smooth, dreamy, and rich with emotion, Kivlen’s is rough, grungy and at times rather flat. I know which pleases my ears more, but that’s not even the issue; it’s that the two vocal styles clash rather than complementing one another. Imagine Belinda Carlisle and Johnny Ramone singing a duet, without either budging from their normal approach.

As the album progresses, there’s more lilting dream-pop (“Easier Said”), thrashy Subways-style punk-pop (“I Was Home”), and big airy 80s rock (“Space Exploration Disaster”). Taken on their own, each of these works fine, but piled together, they make for an album that lacks flow. And then there are stumbles like “Creation Myth,” a slow-to-develop mid-tempo number for the first three minutes that slaps a doom-metal interlude into the final minute of the song for no discernible reason, or return. Rescue attempt: failed.

On the plus side, “This Kind Of Feeling” experiments with subcontinental chord progressions and a guitar approximating a sitar, and ends up feeling something like Berlin covering a George Harrison song—intriguing and exotic, with sharp dynamics. And “Oh I Just Don’t Know,” while underdeveloped, might just be the best vocal arrangement of the album, a less-then-two-minutes meditation where Cumming and Kivlen’s voices finally achieve a kind of balance, Cumming’s high and dreamy, Kivlen’s a sort of low, droning contrast.

Sunflower Bean are working with a proven concept here, and show flashes of promise in their admirably fearless approach. Their challenge is to zero in on the musical settings where the contrast between Cumming’s and Kivlen’s vocal styles amplifies the impact of the song rather than distracting from it, and define a little more sharply who they want to be as a band. “This Kind Of Feeling” and “Oh I Just Don’t Know” offer some definite clues, and while the rest of Human Ceremony isn’t as captivating, there’s potential aplenty on evidence here.

Rating: B-

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© 2016 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Fat Possum Records, and is used for informational purposes only.