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Bernice - Puff LP: In the air without a shape Music Album Reviews

Bernice - Puff LP: In the air without a shape Music Album Reviews

Pop and R&B melodies meet shambling, C86-style song structures on the eclectic Toronto band’s first album since 2011.

In the days before GarageBand, a great deal of indie music was recorded over a few rushed days in cheap studios and pushed out on vinyl with barely any post-production. Bernice, a Toronto group led by singer-songwriter Robin Dann, often sound like a throwback to that glorious, shambling era of the Pastels, Sarah Records, and C86. There is a ramshackle charm to many of their songs, which lollop along at their own sweet pace. And the band’s commercial ambitions are perhaps best summed up by the seven-year gap between their debut album, What Was That, and its follow-up, Puff LP.

Where Bernice differ from most indie shamblers is in their broad-minded approach to songwriting. While few C86 acts betrayed influences more diverse or mainstream than the Smiths, Bernice take their cues from electro, jazz, soul, pop, and R&B, with Dann recently naming Brandy, Sade, and Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream as touchstones. This eclecticism sets up a fascinating musical conversation in which melodies that lean toward R&B and pop—genres whose orthodoxy wouldn’t accept a shamble unless it was Auto-Tuned, double-tracked, and sonically boosted to within an inch of its life—meet Bernice’s loosened song structures.

The single “Passenger Plane” has a soaring chorus that you could imagine Perry bellowing, hurricane-lunged, at the center of a million-dollar music video. But Bernice treat the hook as though it were a nervous hamster, swaddling it in paper-thin layers of synth melody. On “St Lucia,” another fabulous chorus is subverted by a rhythm that sounds permanently on the verge of toppling over. The drums on “Glue” suggest a Canadian exchange student tapping out rhythms on pots and pans outside a tourist attraction for beer money, rather than the perfectly polished, corporeal thump of R&B.

Despite this purposeful raggedness, the songs never feel unfinished: “Glue” also sees the band show off a knack for embellishing their songs with unlikely details, including chirps, burbles, and clicks of indeterminate origin. Ideas surface as light, individual touches rather than piling up in full-bodied, radio-friendly layers. “He’s the Moon,” the best song on the album, is the clearest example of this trade-off between detail and simplicity. Much of the song consists of a simple bassline and Dann’s swooping, Björk-style vocals, to which the band adds subtle trimmings like the occasional clatter of a drum-machine clap, patches of static, and a woozy recorder riff.

Despite the strong songwriting, Puff doesn’t court—and seems unlikely to win over—a broad audience. Dann’s labored low notes on “David,” which recall a prepubescent boy dressed up in a suit to buy cigarettes, might make you wish Bernice had smoothed their rough edges just a bit. The album’s lyrics periodically verge on twee, in lines like, “Red and orange and yellow and blue/I am rubber and you are glue,” from “Glue.” There are moments, too, when the idea-rich Puff becomes idea-laden; “Boat” tosses and turns like the titular vehicle, its melodies too insubstantial to carry so much instrumental folly.

But this willingness to confound is, in part, what makes Bernice special: The band records quietly alluring music in a world of grandstanding blowhards and hides brilliant pop melodies in the shadows of obscurity. Puff may sound as slight as its name suggests—but this idiosyncratic and inventive record is anything but lightweight.

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