Toronto

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: LUKA - What Kind of Animal

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Phillipe Roberts

For an album recorded and mixed live-to-tape in a single day, What Kind of Animal plays like a study in stillness. On his third full-length, Toronto-based musician LUKA capitalizes on his greatest asset, the bleak intimacy of his vocals, surrounding it with arrangements that are content to simmer in the background until called forth to add a touch of chaos. But these outbursts are exceptions to the rule, momentary squalls rippling across otherwise placid waters. An observational songwriter with a keen eye for bleak imagery, LUKA crafts shadowy folk that slithers its way into your heart. What Kind of Animal is a perfect soundtrack to existential dread, a predawn whisper that hangs over you long after sunrise.

LUKA’s tunes sleepwalk down a lineage of somber, close-mic’d pop stretching from The Velvet Underground’s self-titled record up to Yo La Tengo’s groundbreaking And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The sonic focus is squarely on the vocals in the style of Lou Reed’s “closet mixes,” with the supporting instrumentation pushed up and away to emphasize the loneliness of LUKA’s delivery; he sounds truly isolated in the mix, as if he’s singing along to the decaying memory of a song. The softly brushed drums, twinkling guitars, and warm bass hum along dutifully, breaking the reflective mood in only two moments—the ascendant guitar solo on “Animal” and the collective noise-scape that closes out “Happy”—where the cohesion of LUKA’s live band strategically lets off a little steam, bucking you awake after a particularly sleepy stretch.

To be sure, the mood on What Kind of Animal is predominantly overcast. On opener “Near Collision,” LUKA wastes all of two bars before spilling his lonesome guts. “She cried last night / So I held her / She read his poetry in tears,” he confesses, following it up with what might be the album’s finest lyric and thesis statement: “I cannot help but be dazzled by debris.” Indeed, many songs on the record come across like an examination of his own emotional wreckage. The surrealist imagery of standout track “Realize” reads like prelude to a broken relationship, peppered with fortune-cookie distillations of 4 a.m. post-fight wisdom. “Love is but a voice / That calls on you,” he sings, helpless against the tide of emotion sweeping him away as “Everything I feel about you / Moves inward.”

The singular moment of sunlight on the record, “Quick Reflex”, is also its shortest, and can’t help but be tainted by an escapist need for retreat into an idealized past. “Quick reflex / Flex and you’ll be in the past / Quick reflex / Flex and you’ll be home at last,” goes the chorus, sounding absolutely positive that if he can crack open the meaning of objects from an earlier time, he can disappear into it again. This kind of twisted, self-effacing optimism is LUKA’s sweet spot, and the swaying track coasts into the sunset with sprays of shimmering guitar. It serves as a pleasant and welcome counterpoint to the creeping fear that haunts the rest of What Kind of Animal, a masterful rendering of LUKA’s nocturnal sympathies.

VIDEO PREMIERE: LUKA - Realize

Phillipe Roberts

“Did I have a face or an empty smile?”

On “Realize,” nylon-string crooner Luke Kuplowsky, aka LUKA, doesn’t so much decode the cryptic language of dreams as marvel at them. With a bleary-eyed whisper of a voice, so hushed you might feel a phantom breath drifting across your neck, his serene meditations on dreams and push-pull intimacy recall Yo La Tengo at their coziest. The microphone picks up every creak in his inflections, and smoke-filled lines like “For everything I say and do / Gets turned backwards / And everything I feel about you / Turns inwards” pour into the cascading guitar lines with the careful restraint of words left unsaid for far too long. Brushed drums skip along behind, swaying in the aquatic shimmer of pitch-shifted electric guitar to accentuate the sinister undertones of realizing the personal cost, in empathy and compassion, of sustaining love.

The accompanying video, directed by Pierce Desrochers O'Sullivan, plays up the gentle isolation of the song, casting a black-clad LUKA against sparse oceanic backgrounds. Aiming for a kind of DIY surrealism, the VHS-style video shows his form, often reduced to a distant outline, fixed and frozen while gusts, grainy seagulls, and sloshing waves clash around him. Escape in the form of jump-cut vanishings and a mysterious levitation comes slowly, before a soft fade lifts him from a partially submerged jetty, softly erasing him just as the trance-like tune comes to a close. There’s an unobtrusive but quietly psychedelic quality to entire affair; an additional layer of fantasy that complements the original’s haunting closeness.

REVIEW: Fake Palms - Pure Mind

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Phillipe Roberts

Mining a vein similar to the one explored by fellow Canadian gloom-punk outfit Preoccupations, Fake Palms hit the motherlode on Pure Mind, an LP that forges their formidable instrumental chops into a searing collection of nocturnal anthems, putting anxiety under the knife for a makeshift dissection.

When we last checked in with the Palms on “Snowblind,” the scathing closer from the Heavy Paranoia EP, they were peeling apart the tension they’d maintained in that collection, building up a towering inferno of distortion and cascading drums. The otherworldly screech they left behind is the bedrock of Pure Mind opener “Fear,” an open wound hissing with anticipation before their signature swirl of thorny guitars shoots out in all directions. Guitarists Patrick Marshall and Michael Le Riche weave a disorienting tapestry of notes together, climbing over one another in a frantic tightrope race to the finish line. It helps that the muscular rhythm section, led by returning drummer Simone TB and assisted by the sinister bounce of newcomer bassist Lane Halley, never bats an eyelash at the guitarists' melodic provocations. TB is particularly stunning across the record. Good drums provide a backbone, but her hyper-aware playing, from the rolling-thunder tom flourishes on the aforementioned “Fear” to the confident, tastefully melodic 7/4 strut of “Glass Walls,” forms the whole damn skeleton.

The atmosphere of Pure Mind is deliriously psychedelic and manic; it never settles into a groove long enough for the listener to rest easy. With so many elements lurching out at every corner, the overall effect is that of a kaleidoscope drained of its color, tunneling around your eye in grayscale horror. It’s here that Le Riche’s vocals enter the mix. Gliding through the turbulence and dripping with reverb, he provides the lone island of calm—a kindred spirit with a ghostly tune to guide you out of the rubble. On smoother patches of sonic terrain, where the claustrophobic clamor of the band dies down to a simmer, Le Riche takes on a confident croon. Swaying in front of a minimal bass and piano figure, his voice paints imagery like “Little silver bells / Falling out of me” with a haunting, ethereal coolness that calls Grizzly Bear or Broadcast to mind.

While these moments of respite are welcome, they never feel necessary. Whether in the form of the dance floor-ready shimmy of “Heaven Scent” or the soaring, arena-sized chorus of “Can’t Erase,” Fake Palms are happy to deliver round after round of moody post-punk that’s rich in texture and taste. Arriving later on the album, “Holograms” feels like a summation of all of their best elements: liquid guitars, arrhythmic no-wave breakdowns, and a jagged, powerhouse rhythm section to make sense of it all. In the video for the song, wireframed digital models tumble, writhe, and dissolve as they’re hurled through rapidly disintegrating landscapes. The pain howling within quite literally breaks and stretches their mesh bodies to the limits of recognizability. Similarly, on their quest for purer minds, Fake Palms have emerged almost unrecognizable from the noisy wreckage of yesteryear, brighter and better for it.