Since the music business paradigm has shifted away from album sales and toward streaming service play counts, artists and their labels have felt more inclined toward prolificacy. Hence, less than a year after they made a big splash with their sophomore album Twentytwo in Blue, here come Sunflower Bean with a new four-song EP, King of the Dudes.
It is not surprising that the NYC-based trio, fronted by the formidable Julia Cumming, would want to lend their voice to the current climate of female empowerment. And it is not surprising they would do so with a brash, snarling nod toward the rock, glam, punk, and indie sounds of the 1970s and 1980s. What is surprising is that they would take such an abrupt turn away from the well-honed eclecticism of Twentytwo in Blue.
That album revealed a band that was still young (the title referred to the members’ ages) yet had matured quite a bit in just a couple of years. The punky rock ‘n’ roll was complemented by tuneful introspection and sweet balladry. King of the Dudes, though, is all attitude. In what will undoubtedly be one of the set’s most-quoted lines, Cumming asks rhetorically on the title track, “Did I just walk in on some circle jerk shit / Just like I knew I would?” It’s a killer takedown of the boys’ club mentality, in rock ‘n’ roll or anywhere else, and it sums up the way Sunflower Bean tear through these four songs.
The songs themselves are plenty fun and catchy. Producer and co-songwriter Justin Raisen (Charli XCX, Sky Ferriera) gives them punch and no small amount of FM-radio gloss. The rhythms are chug-a-lug, the guitars are brazen and flashy, Cummings’ vocals are phased into an airtight sneer. It all works best on “Come For Me”. Released earlier as a standalone single, with its staccato soul guitar line and crashing power chords it’s a double-entendre’d, three-and-a-half-minutes of badassery, Cumming’s “Do you really want to come for me / Do ya?” more of a dare than a seduction.
In four songs and less than 15 minutes, Sunflower Bean manage to channel a decade or two’s worth of female rock ‘n’ roll warriors: Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Pat Benatar, Heart, Concrete Blonde, and many more. And maybe that is a problem. Because for all its attitude, all its empowerment, all its thrashing around, King of the Dudes leaves something to be desired. It is plenty heartfelt, for sure, but it is simply too stiff to be convincing. Adhering so closely to the band’s influences and heroines has made it sound too much like an exercise or a tribute rather than a truly unique expression because it rarely extrapolates from or builds on those influences. Even the crunchy, punked-up finale “The Big One” would get its ass kicked by L7.
King of the Dudes is well-made and sounds like a band who don’t really care what they are expected to do next. But that screw-you-guys point of view cuts both ways. Ironically, Sunflower Bean’s most powerful social statement to date ultimately winds up as a diversion.