Sunflower Bean


Between Stormzy and J Hus, the UK album chart has a welcome anomaly: Twentytwo in Blue, cruising from the indie backwaters into a position that makes you feel, in a fleeting heartbeat, that young bands are still rewarded for their work. Sunflower Bean’s sophomore LP deserves the status. It is a polished, reptilian menagerie of songs that can squeeze just as easily into a dark bedroom as a concert hall, and the Gorilla audience are pumped for a show that will reward the diversity of those attending – everyone from cougars and younglings to dense, Jabba-like old blokes are crammed into the sold-out venue, keen to see what the critical fuss is about.

Because, really, none of us are after more than sad-happy guitar lines. Pound for pound, there aren’t many groups that do this better than Sunflower Bean, who’ve already got five or six classics in the bag. And I probably should’ve made Songs a proper noun – when stood alongside their debut, this new record is less cosmic, more shapely and determined to fill the cavities of the heart. As beautiful as some of the new tracks are, you might worry a little; too many artists dampen their ferocity before they see how far it can spit. Human Ceremony was overproduced, to be frank, so TtiB could be viewed as another bout of terminal saccharinity, taking everything that’s scratchy and haunting away from the depth of their talent.

Can the live setting prove me wrong? Before I find out, Sorry are ready to fuse Courtney Barnett with an electro drum pad, led by a frontwoman who speaks with a fathomless London accent. Or she could be Swedish, or cod-Australian…that doesn’t matter when the set is this weird. Misgivings thaw when the four-piece angle away from ragged, stop-and-start riffs to material like ‘Drag King’, which posits a laundrette of sex-identity images churning to the beat of a teenager on their mother’s Valium. You’re never quite sure where they’re going next. The bassist looks terrified. A co-vocalist, Louis, wraps his mouth around short words. ‘2 Down 2 Dance’ is the aural equivalent of someone itching their arm, splayed on a sofa whilst a party drones around them in the whiff of bad poppers. Sorry are good, and strange, and come across like a rainy day on your post-punk collection. They get a solid reception too; one to watch for a full-length release when it arrives.

But we’re in for something else entirely, come 9pm: a dirty New York slap of star power, announced by the skyward fist of Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming. The Bean – as absolutely no-one bar me is calling them – need to prove that they’re still a raw performative element, as well as high-gloss musos talking about growing up and student debt.

And they do this, consistently, over an hour and a half. Opener ‘Burn It’ still proves a damp start, just like the studio version, but ‘Come On’ follows and it propels us immediately into the sensations of a grim club show, which is just what I wanted. Cumming has become a much better singer than her work from 2016 would’ve suggested. Gone is the airy, choir-girl falsetto; in its place stands a juggernaut pushing manically at the top of her range, hungry for blood. The ‘Come On’ refrain is delivered at rapid-fire inflection whilst she tears at the borders of the verse, screaming and holding notes when she prefers to. Throughout, this full-voiced translation of her songs is so very good to hear, hitting a peak on numbers such as ‘Twentytwo’ and ‘I Was Home’.

Sunflower Bean

The psychedelia is more muted than it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s wholly obliterated, as an outing of ‘2013’ proves. Those distinctive, nimble notes from guitarist Nick Kivlen are a treat, socking us in the face one moment and drifting on waves of reverb when the next turn appears, keeping the songs moving whilst soaping them in melodic ice water. The Bean’s success is down to two things: bass and lead parts that ride well together, and the stalactites of beauty that hang from Kivlen’s choruses. He’s a literate musician who can move from owning the set to complementing it. That’s a real gift. And in his rainbow boiler suit, he’s such a winning presence, spinning neatly towards Cummings and Jacob Faber, the near-invisible stickman on the kit.

The band appear to be genuinely appreciative of Manchester, both as a musical sowing field and a live foreground. It is “the best show on the tour”, a claim that you want to call bullshit on before you scent the love in the room. A guy fights his way to the stage not once, but twice, crowd-surfing to ‘Human For’. He’ll appear again and get battered by a roadie, but he nudges Julia in the throes of a chord switch; something you don’t really get anymore as audiences have bottomed out on too much careful, arms-crossed cynicism. That’s why she appreciates it. The band chugs more powerfully as a result, and plays a stupendous ‘I Was A Fool’ to close out the main portion of the gig – a tune that might be its best hold on moody pop sensuality, trapped in a slithering slow dance that is one-half teen prom, the other a regretful admission that love can be quicksand if we don’t know who we might be yet.

The uncertainty is in no way carried over into a (very) brief encore. Seriously, can we dispense with encores? There is no place for them in a world of £4.40 Red Stripe. They make you thirstier, but only in the sense of a Punch & Judy stall, where the same tired gasps of ‘He’s behind you with a big fucking mallet!’ are pressed out of parents on the grass. Doesn’t matter, however; Sunflower Bean return after 20 seconds for the slow-burn romance of ‘Only A Moment’. Wow: a patient ballad, with no lift-off. It underlines the extent to which this New York group toss mauve and melancholia into a rocket ship, waving goodbye as they streak to a planet that is as translucent as they are.

Sunflower Bean: Bandcamp | Facebook | Twitter

Joshua Potts

Josh is a protruding thumb. He’s a hitchhiker on the freeway of life, fond of deprecation and Radiohead. Nothing frightens so much as ‘nothing’ – that is, sitting back and waiting for the world to slip away unnoticed. He has been writing for several years under a shroud of mercenary journalism, using all sorts of societal excuses to flex his pencil, which doesn’t exist because who uses pencils anymore? No-one creative. Or, if they do, he’ll find them, prepping a coffee shop essay that would make Montague blush with missed chances.He likes Stewart Lee, Stevie Nicks and lampshades. The streets have claimed him as their own at some point, but it’s likely he forgot about it en route to an Aldi for Rubicon and posh hummus. Restlessly, he prowls through the lexicon and says, “This! This here!”, and thinks that’s what life is about: choosing ways to express how beautiful we are, in front of as many minds as we can.