It was September 2018 at Chicago's Riot Fest, just after noon and kids were running. Not rushing, not walking fast, but running, across Douglas Park to get to Rebel Stage, the one farthest from the fest entrance.
They were running for Beach Bunny, a then baby band that since then has played Riot Fest, Lollapalooza and is on this year's Coachella lineup. It has a new album, "Honeymoon," that will be on a great many "best of" lists by year's end because of what it is: a bracing, blissful power pop gem with a sound as open as leader Lili Trifilio's heart.
It's easy to brush her work off as emo Taylor Swift. But Trifilio writes songs that encapsulate the difficulties of being a normal young woman. Being stood up, left at prom, broken hearts, body image, dudes and the nonsense they make women go through. She sings those songs in a way that makes her devoted following feel she's one of them, because she is. Trifilio isn't some leggy, distant goddess, flanked by dancers. She's a pop star now, with a grin, a guitar almost as big as she is and a genuine sense of "Whoa, that this is happening is nuts." And she's presenting personal, empathetic songs that are as catchy as they are genuine. "Honeymoon" might be the band's first full-length, but it's really a continuation of everything that's come before, a continuing story being lived by Beach Bunny fans.
"Promises" is the opener, stark and so wide open it almost cracks, Trifilio's clear bell of a voice set to chiming guitar. It's the standard tune, austere opening that raises the curtain on the band, guitar building as drummer Jon Alvarado kicks things into vibrant life. "Promises and problems were all left inside / Buried away at the back of my bed" The sound is polished but not slick, which is a neat trick, the feeling of being polished-yet-indie, and one that finds the band at a complex moment. A group has to grow along with its fan base, but not so much that connection gets lost. "Part of me / Still wants you / Part of me / Wants to fall asleep"
It's glib and dismissive to label Beach Bunny with stuff like "sad girl rock," or "surf pop." This is a band that asks hard questions, but from a very personal perspective that also crosses genders. Everybody wants to be loved, worries about love, has feelings that keep them up at night. Dudes are screaming the lyrics too because every "he" could as well be a "she." The relationship anxiety of the past in "Painkiller" finds a progression in the new "Cuffing Season." "Hesitant, to commit / I don't want to waste my time / That's not love." More fear, more anxiety, a process that happens in about three perfect minutes, ending with a confident, declamatory-but-defensive "sometimes I like being on my own." These songs work because they're human.
At Lollapalooza 2019, former Tribune music critic Greg Kot was at the Beach Bunny set and found himself next to a rep from Mom + Pop Records, there for the same reason: to hear this quartet of local heroes that had everyone hopping, singing every word to every song. "Prom Queen" held them rapt, "Painkiller" threw the place up for grabs. A baby band coming to life in the city in which it grew up means fans are proprietary. They don't want something they know spoiled by the industry, and when that first big full-length comes out, they watch it like hawks, alert for anything amiss.
They won't find it on "Honeymoon," an album that feels like a live set as the band bounces briskly from mood to mood. "Cuffing Season" is one of the best pop songs to come out of Chicago in a while, a bouncy, flawless treat. "April" slows the tempo, gives time to think, "Rearview" is a slow-building rave that starts with Trifilio and her guitar. "Was I ever good enough for you / There's always someone I'm trying to live up to." Hooks, choruses, songs that don't go on for a second longer than they should, because knowing how to end a song is as important as how to start one. Beach Bunny isn't a band come lately. It has a host of singles and EPs, delicate sonic emanations that trace the progress of excellence at the group's Bandcamp page. The self-released efforts, awash in reverb, sound like what they are, finished sketches of a budding artist. "Honeymoon" is more polished, the reverb is more faint, replaced by a modern production that still places Trifilio's voice where it belongs, front and center. She's the star of the show, the reason her devoted followers come.
In a recent show at Thalia Hall, she asked the crowd to separate into two halves. Normally these requests take time, coercion, repeated requests. Trifilio had to ask once and fans made like that cinematic Red Sea. Her stage presence was more assured, the band tighter, the simple beats of Alvarado replaced by fills and rolls to give the songs impetus, growth heard to compelling effect on "Honeymoon." Even the slower songs bounce, buoyed by the optimistic tones of Trifilio, even when she's chronicling open-hearted longing, worry and anxiousness. Song after song, hook after hook, choruses that you can hear festival crowds scream. "Part of me / Still hates you / How could you love someone and leave?"
Albums like this kinda irritate a critic, because stuff this good gnaws at you. I have been living with this album since November, picking at it, looking for flaws, being a professional grouch. I got nothing. "Colorblind" kicks all the furniture over, all fury and unapologetic apology, "Racetrack" is weirdly Bjorkian, slow and austere, a lament that skirts so close to being cheesy but instead achieves beauty. Things even end perfectly with "Cloud 9," and the universal joy that comes with love. "But when he loves me / I feel like I'm floating," set to tom-tom and handclaps. It's an ode to joy, with music that makes you want to run around the room. (The snails in the video seem weird, except for fans of the band who know the group's Audiotree Live session by heart.)
We tend to be suspicious of great debuts, want to say that time and the next record will tell whether Beach Bunny has what it takes. Doesn't matter. In a temporal genre such as pop music, where everything is of the moment, this is Beach Bunny's moment, and it's irresistible.
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