Electronic Pop

REVIEW: Bernice - Puff LP: In the air without a shape

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Raquel Dalarossa

When we listen to music, we typically respond emotionally. We talk about how it feels to listen to a certain song—or, perhaps more accurately, how the sounds communicate those feelings to us. 

Bernice, on the other hand, create music that communicates on an entirely different sensory level. It travels through space, it seems to have dimension and body, and it's much more easily imagined or seen than it is felt. The Toronto-based band, led by songwriter and vocalist Robin Dann, treat sounds like shapes and songs like spatial playgrounds. In their new Puff LP (subtitled In the air without a shape), out today via Arts & Crafts, they take a minimalist approach to their sound design that draws attention to the negative space, creating a boundless and playful atmosphere for us to revel in.

Many of the songs on this seven-track album (yes, they are minimalists in the volume of their output, too) have been around for a while—“Puff” was, after all, originally the name of an EP released nearly a year ago. But there are new additions as well as new imaginings of older work, proving that the experimental group are always up to try things just a little differently. Where previously, on the EP, the songs were largely produced by Shawn Everett (best known for his Grammy-award winning work on Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color), now we find Bernice themselves at the helm, alongside engineer Matt Smith. The resulting differences are striking, and very telling of the band's tastes.

Though they've been compared to Sade in the past, their R&B leanings are on full display in this album with a re-recorded version of the smooth, reverberating "David" and richly sensual "One Garden." But things get especially interesting when they pick up the pace just a little, as in the LP's single "Glue." It juxtaposes soulful interludes with catchy, electronic-leaning verses, similar to how the lyrics juxtapose Dann with the person she's addressing: "I am rubber and you are glue." Another favorite of mine is "St. Lucia," which has been cast in an entirely new light for this release. Doing away with the song's dense, industrial character when it appeared on the Puff EP, Bernice transform it into something much lighter on its feet yet simultaneously more ominous.

There's something at once aqueous and stark about the album as a whole. It can feel like being submerged at the deepest depths of the ocean, or floating through the vacuum of space. Closing song "Boat" showcases this effect perfectly. An endearing vocal melody sits front and center, while a cacophony of ornamental sounds buzz by or float softly beside us, creating a sort of aural parallax effect. You get the sense that our attention is always exactly where the band wants it to be, which goes to show how well constructed Puff really is.

TRACK REVIEW: Pastel - close

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Raquel Dalarossa

Valentine’s Day isn’t a particularly exciting holiday for most people, but it is usually, at the very least, a great day for music lovers. Today, we’re gifted a sensual and intimate one-off single, appropriately titled "close," from Pastel.

Pastel is the musical moniker for the Los Angeles-based artist Gabriel Brenner, who last year released the crushing conceptual EP absent, just dust. Now, Brenner is resurrecting the sound that we found on his earlier work—including 2016’s Bone-Weary and 2014’s It Will Be Missed—delicately blending R&B with a bit of bedroom electronic pop.

“close” feels like a painter back at his easel, employing some of his favorite techniques in better-than-ever fashion. It’s a minimalistic track with a steady pulse like a heartbeat, anchoring Brenner’s voice. Sparse instrumentation—plinking piano keys and a scintillating guitar—adorns the space around his hushed, honeyed vocals, and he layers each sound with a care and consideration that's almost audible itself. Many of the lyrics are sung under his breath—a perfect fit for the quiet thoughts and internal observations that he’s giving voice to. But he gains volume and confidence when, in the chorus, he strips away all the sonic ornaments to ask: “Do you think about my body? Do you think about my skin?” And a wave of sound and emotion breaks through the cool exterior as the questions leave his lips.

The song portrays the exquisite feeling of infatuation so tenderly that you can’t help falling in love with it. Catch Pastel at this year’s SXSW Festival in March.

REVIEW: Kitty - Miami Garden Club

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Phillipe Roberts

“I think it’s so ironic that you’re taking your holiday exactly where I wish I could escape from.”

Yikes. These words from Kitty’s “509 Seabreeze” should sting for a native Floridian like myself, and they absolutely would if they weren’t so blindingly accurate. Growing up in the margins of the nation’s tourist trap is a peculiar privilege; pinned between two luxurious, sandy coastlines and punctured by a monstrous fairytale complex where a laughably low minimum wage keeps the dream alive for seemingly everyone but its residents, the Sunshine State naturally breeds escapist fantasy.

And it’s exactly here that we catch up with internet pop prodigy Kitty. After losing the entire first draft of her album to the unfeeling void that is LAX baggage claim, she began a hometown recovery effort that would become Miami Garden Club. True to its name, the debut album documents an artist clawing out of the weeds, with Kitty pruning and primping her sound into a sprawling collection that bursts with color. Over the course of its thirteen tracks, she sharpens her trademark electronic bounce to a point that threads the needle between ballads and bangers—it slices through to the core of boredom-fueled love and lust without skipping a beat, and picks up new tricks along the way.

After years of winding her hypnotic, breathy vocals around other producers' tracks, it’s refreshing to see Kitty producing her own this time around. Even better, the first time seems to be the charm: some of Miami Garden Club’s finest moments feature Kitty dancing to the beat of her own drums. “Affectionate,” a sly warning to a former lover, fuses the album’s strongest vocal hook to a tambourine groove that bucks her usual vaporous tendencies in favor of a neon-drenched, mid-tempo thump. It’s the album’s most infectiously danceable moment. And while “Sugarwater,” later in the album, might initially feel like a retread of old ideas—its clicking hi-hats and woozy synths are vintage Kitty—having complete control over the production seems to inspire some of her best lyrics. “The name of the band is Talking Heads / But you always add a 'the' to the beginning” is one hell of a cred-obliterating dig, especially to someone who can’t walk a hundred feet without “stumbling over flyers for your show on the street.”

In this light, it makes sense that the album only truly stumbles on tracks where Kitty relies more heavily on collaboration. “Mass Text Booty Call,” despite its hilarious premise and a bit of fun braggadocio in its opening radio skit, falls short in the absence of a convincing hook. But thankfully, Kitty hits far more often than she misses when she commits to her ridiculous, spontaneous energy. When “Asari Love Song,” an '80s power ballad for her “intergalactic love,” erupts into a soaring guitar solo, it’s undeniably convincing. With heart-stopping synth stabs and crackling reverb snares coiling around her sweetly menacing vocals, Kitty conquers this new, funky territory with frightening ease.

Moving back home—even when that home isn’t brimming with mosquitoes and dogged by hurricanes—is never an easy proposition. Endless questions, real or imagined, about whether you’ve failed or how long you’ll be back seem to lurk around every familiar corner. To an artist like Kitty, who pioneered the model for using a crafty internet persona to flee from small-town obscurity, the move had the potential to be downright paralyzing. Miami Garden Club, with its leaps in songwriting and production that reaffirm how far she’s come from those limiting surroundings, is not the sound of paralysis. It’s the sound of a master escape artist putting her well-laid plans into action.

REVIEW: Lushloss - Asking/Bearing

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Laura Kerry

Music usually tells simple stories through small lenses. At most, it uses two voices to convey its messages. There are hidden meanings and vignettes that bleed out beyond the edges of a song, of course, but for the most part, the listener can discover the main frames of reference and through lines. Music tends to favor emotion over narrative complexity.

Lushloss’ Asking/Bearing, on the other hand, manages to emphasize both complexity and emotion. Her debut LP is technically a double album, but it sometimes doesn’t feel like an album at all. In the first part, Asking, the Seattle-based artist (also known as Olive Jun) weaves together dialogue, keys, glitchy hip-hop beats, and heavily processed vocals to form something that sounds part radio diary, part audio art piece, and in what remains, deft electronic pop.

The album begins in that last mode. Starting with a soft piano ballad and a gentle vocal melody saturated with effects, the opener “St Marco” builds to a sparse but crisp beat. As the music starts to fade, though, two voices come in, sputtering and speaking over each other. The conversation settles, revealing the Skype call between Jun and her mom that is the foundation of the rest of the album's first half. After each song in Asking, the dialogue returns, often where it left off. Throughout, the two speak from a geographic distance—Seattle to Korea—and a generational distance, but also with the closeness of mother and child. There are moments of discomfort, like that first one, in which Jun’s mom says her trans daughter’s name from before she transitioned; moments of trying to bridge the divide, like when Jun asks her mom, “When did your dad die?”; and moments of mundane logistics, as when her mother starts to plan the next trip.

It’s a complicated story—as much as any cross-section of life could be called a story—that brings up family history, cultural divisions, illness, and coming out as trans to older family members. In the end, though, it circles around the two checking in on each other. After Jun spends much of the conversation asking her mother questions and supporting her through her own mother’s illness (“I just hope you’re okay,” she says at one point), the final piece of dialogue ends with the mother saying, “You have to be okay until we get together.” It’s a jarringly touching moment, heartbreaking because it’s so intimate and raw.

Between the dialogue, Jun’s music complicates the narrative. Sometimes songs intersect with conversation—“St Marco” and “Sisters” each deal with family relationships, and in “Gutter,” the singer asks, “Have you called your mother today?” Most of it wanders elsewhere, though, suggesting a life lived in parallel to the one we can glimpse in the phone call. “Clark, WA,” a moody, guitar-driven track, seems to tell the story of an imbalanced past relationship; in “Sheet,” a delicate but hopeful-sounding song, Lushloss sings, “I’m so tired of feeling tired today”; and in “Yana (Interlude),” the bridge between Asking and Bearing, Lushloss plays a slightly sped-up recording of a voicemail for a person far away, this time with seemingly romantic overtones.

None of that distracts from the call, which comes to form the central narrative. And neither does the album’s second part. Much more straightforward electronic pop, the five songs on Bearing provide welcome companionship for the reflection required after Asking (and they probably deserve more critical space than sharing a bill with Asking affords them). Asking/Bearing is rife with voices—not just the mother-daughter duet, but the artist’s voice processed to different pitches and tones, tapes of friends speaking, field recordings, electronic and acoustic instruments—that tell separate and intersecting stories. At the end, though, as the beat and bare vocals on “Gymnasium” glitches and fades, Lushloss leaves you with an intimate sense of her as an artist and the intimacy that seeing someone so closely can create.

REVIEW: Cuddle Magic - Ashes/Axis

Laura Kerry

Cuddle Magic has been around for a decade, which is a long time by the standards of many pop groups. And since their formation in Boston, the six-piece band has used that time wisely; they've released three polished full-lengths, worked on the side with musicians ranging from Beyoncé to Anais Mitchell, and earned a reputation for their “high-concept chamber-pop” (according to The New Yorker). Now in New York, the band has released a new LP that shows off what they’ve learned together.

On Ashes/Axis, Cuddle Magic returns with a more straightforward sound, though they do manage to maintain much of the complexity and experimentalism that has defined them. The sum of each song is pop, but look beneath the surface, and you begin to unravel the varied and surprising parts that precisely fit together to create the end result. Touches of folk intertwine with electronic dance beats (“Spinning” and “Round and Round,” to name just a couple); whispered, baroque female vocals sit on top of urgent electronic beats (“Voicemail”); and instruments and vocals overlap, intertwine, and dance around each other in unpredictable ways (“Trojan Horse,” “Kiss You”). For the most part, Ashes/Axis is meticulous, burying the inner workings of its sound under danceable beats and folk-infused pop. Every so often, though, they reveal a welcome spark from the inside. When the end of “The First Hippie on the Moon, Pt. I” breaks down for example, it feels like the threads of a tapestry unraveling to show more vividly colored threads than you could have imagined.

Pushing against the hidden complexities—another tension that adds to the fullness of the album—are lyrics that are surprisingly direct. Though Cuddle Magic trades songwriting duties among three members, most songs exhibit the same kind of sincerity. Over the intricate instrumental arrangement in “Kiss You,” for example, the male vocalist sings lines such as, “I don’t want to kiss you yet,” “I still want to know where it all will go,” and “While I think it through / Maybe you’ll kiss me.” In the last song, which contains touches of Sufjan Stevens in vocals and tone, they sing, “Round and round we still keep moving still round and round” lightly over bells and guitar, showing bright-eyed optimism in message, even as their sound is fully developed.

Yet, even that last song, with straightforward lines like, “There is something you can’t see / Connecting you to me,” isn’t quite as it seems. As the listener settles into the repeating guitar riff and slow, marching rhythm that drives the song, a more dancey beat comes in and propels the slow build to the end. And then you start to notice that the chorus, which lends the title to the song, is a clever meta-narrative, enacting the circular action it describes by repeating on “still, round and round.” Until the very end of Ashes/Axis, Cuddle Magic keeps pulling carefully crafted tricks from up their sleeves.