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Sunflower Bean - King of the Dudes EP Music Album Reviews

Though still a bit shaky and cloying, the New York band strikes a good chord with a power-pop sound and starts to carve out a space of their own.

Since the band’s inception, Sunflower Bean has struggled to define their musical identity. In 2015, they rooted their debut album in a vogue New York milieu, as lead singer Julia Cumming adopted the vocal style of My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher. Then, in an effort to depart from their early “fashion band” branding, Sunflower Bean went anti-trend in their 2018 sophomore album, embracing more soft rock sound and taking cues from Fleetwood Mac while performing a slightly more knowing pastiche.

While these references seemed incidental, on King of the Dudes there’s finally a logic and cohesiveness to the band’s musical inspirations. With Cumming increasingly at the center—her voice once a whisper, now a growl—the band’s latest EP spins around a stylized axis of the kind of femme, sugar-kissed power-pop, both finally carving out their own space, and sounding not totally unlike Hole in the process.

Right from the EP’s riffy get-go, the band finds the sweet spot between the grit and gloss of “Celebrity Skin” and the pop-rock artists—Avril Lavigne, Ashlee Simpson, the Veronicas—who followed it. This combination of soft aggression and sheened moxie are potent enough to have its own gel pen scent. The clean production, the rutilant guitar sound, the hybridization of pop and glam are all so irresistibly nostalgic that it’s hard not to be transported back to a time when physical objects—posters, magazines, cherry-stinking stickers—more routinely accompanied music. King of the Dudes is a badge to put on a backpack, a call to break the boy-girl partition at a school disco.

It’s clear that the band are now trying to position themselves among a—for a severe lack of a better term—“women in rock” chronology. “Women are fed up,” Cummings vaguely opined to Rolling Stone, “and we needed a way to express that,” she says, sounding more like an obligation than a rallying cry. She does her best Joan Jett on opening title-track; on “Fear City,” her mediated sentimentality sounds a bit like Hayley Williams’ later vocal stylings; on the closer, “The Big One,” she tries her hand at a Shirley Manson snarl.

While their contemporaries—Veruca Salt, Garbage, Hole—forcefully staked out their own claim, King of the Dudes feels predictably and meretriciously rebellious. The title track, which has Cumming proclaiming herself “king of the dudes,” wasn’t of her own volition. In the same interview with Rolling Stone, the band confirmed that it was producer Justin Raisen’s idea to incorporate the phrase. That might be why Cumming sounds so unconvinced by her own protestations. She’s the king of the dudes “if you want me to be,” she sings.

Lead single “Come for Me” sounds just as editorialized as the opener. Its chorus is bolstered by a gauzy funk guitar line and punchy snares intended to dynamize, but the lyrics “do you really wanna come for me?” feel unworthy of the band’s bombastic setup. It’s the sexual equivalent of a “your mom” line on a diss track, and it follows a slew of empty, artless machoisms. Its opening line: “I’m looking for the manly solution” is an attempt to maintain the already unconvincing “king of the dudes” persona, and it feels about as on the nose as a blackhead.

The EP’s strongest moment by far is “Fear City.” Guitarist Nick Kivlen puts in his best work, as he supports Cumming’s verses with a fluid, tinkering riff, before breaking off into staccato strums during the chorus. Meanwhile, Cumming really embraces that old Umberto Eco adage: “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us,” as she sings, “We walk down the boulevards/Open hands and open hearts,” in a way that finally seems to touch on the band’s own experiences. It’s a moment not about what they think they should say, but rather a simple moment of reflection, edging into a space of introspection that the band so sorely need. Sunflower Bean are excellent song-crafters with a blurry point of view. But there’s some new dimension here that makes the band more than just parrots of politics and sound.

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