Sunflower, the self-titled EP from the Cedar Grove, NJ folk-infused trio Sunflower, is a snapshot of a band in transition. Describing themselves at an intersection between indie folk and psychedelic folk, embellishing the acoustic skeleton with burning, churning organ leads, world percussion and vocal harmonies that are as much Black Mountain and Mount Eerie as Appalachian mountain music.
Sunflower began life in the intimate and humble crucible of local open mics but quickly began to explore and experiment. This is essential to Sunflower's narrative as anyone who's spent any time at open mics can attest, as while they are useful and wonderful for their openness and inclusiveness, open mics can also be havens of acoustic strumming mediocrity.
Sunflower shows their development right from the beginning, with the opening organ strains of "California's Waiting," which sounds sort of like The 13th Floor Elevators jamming with Pete Seeger, not to mention a tent revival at a burlesque. "California's Waiting" suggests Sunflower is ready for California AS IT IS NOW, not how it was in 1968. It's an unusual and distinctive sound that catches the ear and makes you lean in and really listen.
Bobby Kirner and Emily Noll's vocal harmonies are charming without being too polished. There is a danger with much of folk-influenced music to be too precious and twee. There's a little bit of a lysergic, acerbic bite to Sunflower's music that is as much punk as it is bluegrass. If Sunflower does make their way to California, they should make a point to stop by Olympia, WA as this kind of anti-folk/pop/punk is much revered and would go over gangbusters.
"Asylum" finds Sunflower back in rustic roots territory with some reedy vocals and confessional lyrics, courtesy of Bobby Kirner. "Gloomy Day Sunday" brings the organ back with a wide-open, hollow pipe organ sound, full of religiosity, which is complemented nicely by sparse acoustic guitars and little bits of shaker. Sunflower knows when to keep it simple and when to get ornate.
They wrap things up on this gem of an EP with the meditative Hawaiian strains of a ukulele on "Little Town," which brings Emily Noll's vocals into the forefront. Her vocals are somewhere between jazz, ragtime, bluegrass and blues, which may have been described, in 2005, as "old-timey." Here, in 2015, it sounds emotive and human. The sliding, bending microtones of the human vocal cords are a refreshing respite from the technological music landscape.
Sunflower has done much to redeem acoustic roots Americana on their first fully realized EP, digging the past and catapulting it into the future. And here, I thought I would never be able to enjoy the ukulele again.
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