Puff

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: Bernice - Puff EP

Kelly Kirwan

Bernice plays electric, soulful grooves that unfold like the tendrils of an ivy plant, spreading serpentine across the surrounding landscape in a downright hypnotic germination. The six-piece band hails from Toronto, their moniker serving as a proverbial Russian nesting doll, packing in all the facets of experimental pop each bandmate brings to the table. Spearheaded by Robin Dann, the group’s most recent release, Puff, is a deep dive into curious and unpredictable arrangements, which gleam with rhythm & blues influences and offer garnishes of synth to maintain a sense of the avant-garde. Bernice's songs are cerebral and immersive, grown in the maze of the mind where imagination and philosophical musings mingle and evolve in tandem.

Their single, "St. Lucia," is paired with an animated video that features richly-colored sketches against a black canvas. A thumping percussion and undulating bass line reverberate deeply across the track, as Dann sings, “Hey, your name is mine / To feel,” her voice climbing in decibels as she reaches the final word, while simultaneously possessing the airy quality of a whisper. The video follows the sketches of women as they shift between purple and blue hues, diving into pools of water and then trying to hold the liquid between cupped hands. The song is mesmerizing, as is the animation, which focuses on the women in Dann’s family that came before her. Between generations they would pass down traits and names, silent links ingrained in our DNA, but without ever truly knowing the person that passed them on. It’s a phenomenon that Dann plays with in a mesmerizing fashion. 

Then there’s "David," whose lyrics could crack even a stone-cold heart. The song is slower burn, with warbled synths wobbling across the surface. “David / Sedated / Lying on the floor … Can’t lift his eyes anymore,” Dann sings, painting a picture of a protagonist riddled with the lethargy of defeat and depression. Her vocals are layered with a second satiny, songbird pitch, and their pairing feels both earnest and heartbreaking. It’s a beautiful, gut-wrenchingly subdued ballad. “Everything feels awfully empty for David … He wasn’t ready back then / Just give him something to believe in…” Dann continues, her voice wispy and slightly strained over the words. The song plays out like a glass fixture wobbling on the edge, crystalline and on the cusp of shattering into a million glittering pieces.

Puff is gem of an EP, a whirlwind of thought-provoking themes and funk-laden melodies. I highly recommend listening for yourself.