When did the cheesiest American sounds of the 1980s become the hippest Canadian music of the 2020s? When did smooth jazz become an underground concern? You might call it Kaputt-core: In the years since Destroyer’s landmark album—but especially during the past few years—a new wave of loosely connected Toronto indie musicians have experimented with and subverted the softest, smoothest styles of the Reagan era.
Saxophonist/composer Joseph Shabason, who played on Kaputt, has been at the forefront of this movement, toggling between New Age textures and clanging dissonance on his 2021 album The Fellowship and luxuriating in lite-jazz licks on last year’s supergroup project Fresh Pepper. Then there’s The Weather Station, who marshaled the whirling intensity of quiet storm on 2021’s Ignorance, and the Japanese composer Masahiro Takahashi, who melts the borders of ambient, exotica, and sighing smooth jazz on his recent album Humid Sun.
Several of those artists are associated with the vibrant Toronto label Telephone Explosion, which also became home to experimental pop group Bernice during the pandemic. (Notably, multiple members of Bernice play in Fresh Pepper.) So, it’s probably not a coincidence that Bernice’s fourth album, Cruisin’, flutters to life with an exuberant rush of crystalline synths and wordless ooohhs and ahhhs, as though the members of this eccentric quintet just returned from a yoga retreat in 1986.
The group’s last album, 2021’s Eau de Bonjourno, was steeped in supple grooves and off-kilter R&B murmurs. Cruisin’ is more colorful, a peculiar melange of artifice and sincerity. The gauzy, processed guitars summon Treasure-era Cocteau Twins; the joyfully hokey synth presets on friend-in-need crooner “Are You Breathing” and the Zen-like “No Effort to Exist” bring to mind the Yamaha DX7 reveries once favored by Beverly Glenn-Copeland, a prominent admirer of Bernice’s work. (Even more kitschy is the instrumental ditty “Little Miss Timmy,” which could be incidental music for a Game Boy Color game.) Yet the silky-smooth sweetness of Dann’s voice brings a human warmth to the compositions, whether she’s crooning sweet existential nothings about birds on “No Effort to Exist” or giving herself a goofy pep talk on the novelty-rap “I Am Brave,” one of several sub-minute fragments. On “Yoohoo,” she stretches out the titular phrase as if she’s delivering the world’s gentlest wolf howl.
It’s the tension between this retro artificiality and the intimacy of Bernice’s songwriting that makes Cruisin’ a thrilling experiment. Several songs emerged from a writing retreat in 2021, where the band explored an epistolary mode, checking in on friends or community members through song. “Underneath My Toe” opens like an emoji-filled text message (“Hi! I miss you all the time!”), with Dann cooing words of affection to a dearly missed friend; the music vacillates between pitter-patter jazz-pop and lurching funk. Elsewhere, Dann’s writing runs the gamut from vast and existential musings (“Dog Needs Love,” the rare clunker) to hyperspecific odes (“Barbara, It’s Your Tree,” a lovely letter-in-song to a nonagenarian loved one). Even when you don’t know who she’s singing about, you can sense a glow of affection and curiosity.
Cruisin’ is what happens when classy musicians work with the chintziest materials possible, all MIDI sheen and New Age cheese. Thirty-five years ago, people made music that sounded like this because it was just what was popular and commercial. Today, Bernice and their Toronto peers are exploring that aesthetic because they have something new to say.
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