Experimental Pop

VIDEO PREMIERE: twig twig - Only One

Phillipe Roberts

The art-pop delicacies Brooklyn’s Zubin Hensler creates as twig twig are playful in production and generous in melody, grasping for personal truth with eager fingers through plush, psychedelic soundscapes. Owing no small debt to his extensive work in scoring for film and television, the songs have always played cinematic—bubbly and bright with a penchant for cartoonish left-turn transitions. On his latest album, darkworld gleaming, Hensler goes for broke, releasing his most animated collection yet. Cut from the same carnivalesque Technicolor cloth as Kishi Bashi or a digitized Grizzly Bear, darkworld gleaming is as tender as it is adventurous.

The intimate vocal performances and woozy, aquatic instrumental textures of “Only One” capture this dichotomy precisely, and the track finally has a video to match. Hand-drawn overlays are applied over reels of film, translating the song’s fizzed-out, grainy quality quite literally. Gooey red letters slide by, hardly synced up to the beat as they’re met with footage of leafy plants and a bus driving backwards, nonsensical questions, and a bizarre cameo by Woody from Toy Story growing a five o’ clock shadow in sequence. It’s a charming, whimsical portrait of the song. Unconcerned with keeping a grip on reality, twig twig free-associates into a marvelous new wonderland.

REVIEW: Trees Take Ease - Stevia

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Will Shenton

With Stevia, Trees Take Ease (AKA Brooklyn artist Stephen Becker) has created a world of his own, replete with philosophical musings and surreal diversions. Describing the EP as "a land of mushy songs and rumpled dreams, frozen vegetables and slippery posters, vitamin d and gnarled yarn," Becker defines the impressionistic framework—or lack thereof—that gives his sound such a beguiling character.

Nostalgic and contemplative, each song on Stevia feels equal parts familiar and alien, mirroring an introspective dive into one's own psyche. The lyrics are delivered in sensory fragments, often giving abstract ideas very tactile characteristics. "Love is a concept fading and tough / Like a moon in waning," Becker sings over an upbeat drum kit on "Whole In One," continuing, "Ready or not / I'm a cookie crumbling / Soft / Like a mattress fumbling." It's beautifully vivid nonsense, reveling in absurdity while nonetheless seeming to get at some truth that defies categorization.

The songwriting itself is largely energetic and poppy, but Becker takes countless surprising detours. The hypnotic beat of "See Saw" devolves into an extended off-kilter guitar solo; "Every Inch" blends squeaky-clean synths with lackadaisical, lo-fi vocals; "Same Old" is a propulsive, hazy pop-rocker steeped in sunshine; and closer "Stephen" mirrors the opener in runtime and its dissolution into washed-out atmospherics. There's a throughline, to be sure, but these subtle changes in direction make for a riveting listen.

Never content to take things at face value, Trees Take Ease resists easy definitions. "Less is not more," Becker chants on "See Saw," pushing back against the platitude and carving a space for his work outside the mundane. While Stevia is relatively short, it's certainly not minimalist. Dense with both sounds and ideas, it declares an uncharacteristically straightforward thesis: maybe more is more.

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.

REVIEW: Jaunt - Cue

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Phillipe Roberts

With Cue, Jaunt exploits the EP format to its fullest, sampling caught-from-the-air melodies liberally while exercising tasteful restraint, knowing when each elegant idea has run its course. Tirelessly catchy with an expert ear for the seemingly nonsensical oddball songwriting twist, the band leaves you hanging on every note, riding a constant wave of discovery as each song refuses to wear out its welcome. From top to bottom, ambient outro included, Cue unfolds like a singles collection; a Now That’s What I Call Experimental Pop hit parade with replay value galore.

No matter how you slice it, the dominant mode of Cue, the roots and rhythm of the project, is R&B. Whether it’s the depth of the pocket on “Best Case” or the sultry choral vocals on “Faster Interactions," the Isley Brothers-style shuffle of “Machined” or the detailed backing harmonies of “Intimate Sunset,” Jaunt keep it grounded in the groove, even as they push it into left field. Fans of Hundred Waters or Dirty Projectors will feel right at home here, though the beats on Cue are funkier than anything Longstreth and Co. have put out in more than a few years.

Jaunt’s take on the genre chases melodies into a corner and lets them fight their way out. Ideas rarely loop more than once before mutating into inviting new forms. The penultimate track, “Faster Interactions,” bends its riffs to the breaking point, sometimes abandoning them altogether for stranger pastures. Group vocals jarringly glide down into a lower register before landing on a cushion of electric organ. Video game sounds double up the drum hits in a segue towards a rumbling bass synth outro, a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of rhythm reminiscent of the best of Stereolab on Dots and Loops. It’s truly boggling how many transformations occur, but even more stunning given the track’s three-minute runtime.

These slight runtimes—“Faster Interactions” is the only track to even crack the three-minute ceiling—will have you dragging the dial back again and again. And although none of the songs feel “incomplete” per se, Jaunt’s tendency to French exit just as your mind latches onto the hook will absolutely leave you wanting more, launching you into a bit of an addictive cycle. The almost-title track “Cued” is the record’s main offender, a gorgeous bit of digital vocal riffing dancing atop a hauntingly beautiful layer of swooning cinematic synthesizers. As it floats to a one-minute finish, you can’t help but feel a sense of helplessness at having been teased so perfectly. Putting a picture-perfect slow jam banger intro at the end of a record is malicious, cruel, and utterly brilliant—the kind of move that will have you scrambling to pre-order the next episode.

In the midst of this double-edged generosity, there’s “Intimate Sunset,” perhaps the one track on Cue where Jaunt’s contemporary sensibilities take a back seat to cozy nostalgia. A gentle, '60s-inspired folk tune, the track gives up the misdirection and sticks to wringing every drop of romance out of those chords. It’s a patch of firm ground, tucked between the shifting fault lines and earth-quaking juxtapositions before and after, but it really shows off just how flexible Jaunt are becoming in their stylistic evolution, exposing that their quirky turns aren’t simple ignorance, but calculated leaps away from the intuitive “right” way. Cue is a real treat of a record, a delightful adventure in opening up the senses. Comfort food spiced to perfection.

REVIEW: Thanya Iyer - Do You Dream? Mixtape

Raquel Dalarossa

Montreal's Thanya Iyer calls her music "future folk." It's an apt categorization, not least because the future is, by definition, full of endless possibilities. Iyer—a vocalist, composer, producer, and bandleader—crafts music that is fanciful and roaming, incorporating bits of soul, jazz, electronica, and pop to build her own version of the future.

Formally, her band includes friends Daniel Gélinas and Alex Kasirer-Smibert, but the trio recruit plenty of contributors to complete their ambitiously lush sound. The experimental group will put anything at their disposal in an effort to enhance the textures in their music; on Iyer's debut album, Do You Dream?, released two years ago, Gélinas is credited for playing "dried clementine peels," but the percussionist can also be seen in a live video using two bowls of water for instruments.

Now, in a cassette mixtape put together for Topshelf Records, the band has revisited their album with fresh minds and fresh appetites for ever more exploration. The result includes three thoughtfully reimagined tracks and two new ones that dial back Iyer's orchestral tendencies in favor of something more intimate in character. Aided by the "Mawmz" choir (Brigitte Naggar, Shelby Cohen, Sarah Rossy), the tracks here have an especially dreamlike, ethereal quality when compared to their original album versions, but Iyer’s vocals remain the anchor to the constantly expanding and evolving landscape of sounds. 

"Daydreaming" gains a full minute of gauzy, sleepy rumination, while "Bridges" becomes an after-hours jam, the hushed vocals, atmospheric hums, and heartbeat-like drumming blending together like muted, watercolor tones on a creamy canvas. “Not Warm / Not Cold” jumps between choral a cappella sections and noisy maximalist ones before nestling into a warm nook, where Iyer’s honeyed, soulful vocals sit atop a bed of gently played keys and hi-hats. Finally, the two new tracks, "Water" and "Solace," round out the collection, the former full of inviting intrigue and mystery, and the latter a space-age lullaby.

With the tracks all bleeding into one another, they feel more like vignettes than fully formed songs per se, which means the mixtape is best enjoyed uninterrupted. But who would want to interrupt this all too short and tender ride through Thanya Iyer's imagination anyway?