Julia Ann Bee, the squeaky-voiced architect of this indie-folk pop-rock outfit had already netted some generous praise from the ever vigilant cultural citadel that is National Public Radio, as well as The New York Times, by the time she released Build a Boat to the Sun. Like Sufjan Stevens, Sea of Bees manages to sound simultaneously baroque and lo-fi, like a tiny little alternative orchestra incorporating everything from pianos to glockenspiels to synth percussion. A decently varied grab bag of indie and folk influences, Build a Boat is overall a bit more thematically even-keeled than 2012’s Orangefarben, an album of what Father John Misty would cheekily describe as “wound-licking music,” whose songs primarily dealt with the failure of Bee’s romantic relationship and sported one word titles like “Broke” and “Gone.”
Opener “Test Yourself” sounds kind of like Alvin and The Chipmunks covering one of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s power pop-type songs, along with some Elton John influence tossed in, in the form of the tinny little retro organ and the “La La Laaaaaaaaaaa” section. This whacky lil’ singer can be both lush and spare interchangeably, as she proves with “Karma Kard,” which feels like the sonic equivalent of a slow motion frolic through a field of azaleas. Bee has a very subtle handle on shifting atmospheres from song to song, even when the basic structural framework remains throughout the album
In “Old Bridge,” a folk ensemble carries Bee’s pristinely harmonized vocals. It sounds nostalgic until the lyrics get cryptically sad (“Rest in peace Lou Reed / Why did you leave me with the Bees?”). If you imagine it out of context, it could have been an unused Bob Dylan-penned rambler in the vein of “Wagon Wheel.” “Ease” expertly shifts instrumental prominence from guitar to piano to vocals while the marching band snare drum rattle gives the song some sort of Civil War-era cadence. Though Build a Boat to the Sun relies heavily on acoustic guitars and pine trees and antiquated imagery, it has at least one foot planted firmly in the present.
Spiky electric guitar coyly slides into the mix of “Ease” early on, building to a grand crescendo that doesn’t sound wholly nostalgic. Meanwhile, straight ahead alternative pop rocker “Little Sea” features a jumpy bassline, and takes equal stylistic cues from both R.E.M. and the Beatles. Bee even has one ear to the stars as told by the David Bowie-style retro synth arpeggios that mark the chorus of “Dan.” With “Moline” comes a sudden shift in tone – the chords feel leaden and chunky, and topped with the somber refrain, “You’re the one who broke your own heart.” Closing track “Dad” sashays in with a ’60s girl group rhythm, “Ooh sha-la-la” section with a bit of added bite thanks to the ever-persistent electric guitar.
Bee’s song are pretty much the same verse-chorus-verse deal forwards and backwards, but the basic structure she’s chosen to stick to has had no trace of negative impact on any of her albums. As with her previous outings, the highlight of Build a Boat to the Sun is definitely the songstress’ wide-ranging voice, both in terms of sound and construction through her thoughtful, personal lyrics. Understated yet fully realized, Bee feels destined to be the next in the line of indie starlets.