Bernice Puff LP: In the air without a shape

[Arts & Crafts; 2018]

Styles: dream pop, R&B, experimental pop
Others: Adult Jazz, Baths, Beach House

The sophomore album Puff LP: In the air without a shape by Toronto dream weavers Bernice deals in understated wonderment. Frontwoman Robin Dann’s lyrics often recall and indulge in the big, lush joys of childhood, while her tempered vocal delivery grounds those flights of fancy. With an unassuming demeanor, Dann will make reference to the amazement of a sun-bathed aircraft (“Passenger Plane”), frozen lemonade and bowls of watermelon (“One Garden”), or a lunar inamorato (“He’s the Moon”). Other times, she’ll simply repeat a phrase that’s inexorably associated with adolescence, like the bullshit affirmation “I am rubber and you are glue” that she touts on Puff’s opener “Glue.” This is the vivid, imaginative, sumptuous stuff of youth, but what keeps the album’s imagery from turning into sensory overload is Dann’s delicate singing, which floats so lightly over the music it sounds as if her words evaporate the moment they hit your eardrums. Bernice, on Puff, draw from a wellspring of hyper-specific experiences and images, juxtaposing Dann’s expressive lyrics with her even-keeled temperament.

And then there’s the music. Bernice underpin Dann’s and co-vocalist Felicity Williams’s featherweight singing with sedated keys and a start-and-stop rhythm section. Keyboardist Thom Gill shades the album with brushes of cool synths and spontaneous futurist zaps and buzzes. Phillippe Melanson’s drumming wanders in and out of each song, fashioning a stumbling drum loop on “St. Lucia” that seems to come and go independently of the rest of the band. Daniel Fortin’s bass playing is economical and uneasy: on “Glue,” he pivots between key signatures like twists on a Rubik’s cube. And guitarist Colin Fisher plays on a need-to-hear basis, turning away from indulgent noodling and needless soloing in service of the bigger picture. Together, the band creates beds of sound rather than grooves, ruminative layers of dreamy R&B plush that resist easy hooks and tedious musical excursions.

Bernice’s greatest asset is their discretion. Even when their alien keyboard sounds reach a fever pitch and the atmosphere grows all-consuming, they manage to keep an aloofness about them. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes and closing with “Boat,” the musical equivalent of an Irish goodbye, Puff doesn’t grab your attention directly. Rather, it occupies your subconscious, leaving vestiges of melodies and lyrics behind that lie dormant for stretches of time, resurfacing intermittently and maddeningly.

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