Sunbears! are habitually compared to Flaming Lips. I’ve been guilty of making the association myself since few other modern acts are capable of crafting such thoughtful, blissful, lushly orchestrated psychedelia with experimental rock spaciness and deep pop-melodic sensibility. The Jacksonville outfit even took part in the forthcoming Lips-curated tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (they appear on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” alongside Maynard James Keenan). But where the Lips seem to be at a creative standstill, stuck in a rut of aimless experimentation and complacent ego-driven album covering, Sunbears! are on the upswing, still full of enough youthful vigor and inspiration to maintain a sense of heartfelt wonder and exuberance in the music they make while managing to grow their sound (and lineup) between 2011 debut You Will Live Forever and this year’s sophomore follow-up.
And even if the lyrical content on Future Sounds (New Granada Records) is somewhat bleaker than that its predecessor, the tender appeal remains, as do instrumental arrangements that are as sumptuous, expansive and transcendent as ever.
Long-standing Sunbears! duo Jonathan Berlin (vocals, bass, guitar, keys) and Jared Chase Bowser (drums) are now joined by two extra members, Walter Hill (guitar, keys) and Jordan Allen Davis (guitar, drum pads), who give the songs more breathing room while adding layers of organic sound and infusing the 11 tracks with a level of dynamism that makes the build-up and crescendos all the more powerful.
The introductory wash of instrumentals in the short title track and set opener segues directly into the bombastic existentialism of “He’s a Lie! He’s Not Real,” its rhythms hurtling ever forward amid whirring and swirling synthesizers, tolling church bells (a trademark Sunbears! accoutrement that pops up all throughout the album) and Berlin’s beseeching vocals reflecting on god, the universe and our tendency to worry about life’s inconsequentialities rather than focusing on the things that really matter. Cuts like “Now You’re Gone” and “Laughing Girl” turn up the variety of guitar textures, the former driving into a dramatic mid-song break of laser-firing astral-projecting waves, the latter surging and crashing with swells of strings and soaring synth-sonics evoking ‘90s psych-shoegaze – while “I Dreamed a Dream (That I Dreamt of You)” has a vintage-trippy rock n’ roll quality that evokes both Beatles and Bowie but sprawls through modern sample-strewn, backwards-looped space-faring terrain.
Instrumentally uplifting, lyrically poignant, and perfectly cohesive from start to finish, Future Sounds proves itself a strong second outing and reveals a band that is primed to take the Lips torch and run with it.
Critics’ Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars.
Future Sounds drops on Tue., Nov. 11, via Tampa's own New Granada Records.
Media for a few cuts off Future Sounds below.