Exclaim!'s Staff Picks: Bernice's Lovely 'Cruisin'' Is Fuelled by Feeling

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished May 12, 2023

Toward the end of his prolific '70s period, Neil Young recorded a song called "Will to Love," that ended up on 1977's country rockin' American Stars 'N Bars. Considering the rest of that LP, and the experimentation Young would undertake the following decade, "Will to Love" is something of an outlier. Recorded at home in a single take, you can hear the artist's roaring fireplace crackling throughout. Minimal overdubs include touches of vibraphone, guitars and a hushed rhythm section, while lyrically, Young imagines himself as a salmon, energized by emotion on his migratory swim in dedication to true love. It's a song you'll find either incredibly heartfelt, or one too deep in the "Homegrown."
I invoke "Will to Love" as I feel, spiritually and compositionally, the stream Young's salmon occupied runs alongside the two-lane highway Bernice roll down on their latest full-length Cruisin'. Like that song, the Toronto experimental pop outfit's second LP for Telephone Explosion is fuelled by dedication and feeling, holding good humour close with a wink and retaining the charming musical nebulousness that has made them a local favourite. Cruisin' is not a country album, but it moves like one, capturing the band in more undemanding, exploratory territory than its mesmeric predecessors ostensibly conceived amidst the bustle of their home city.
Recorded at home, Cruisin' had its guiding principle emerge while Bernice began writing on a farm in Bond Head, ON, penning messages to a variety of subjects under working title Songs for People. Communicating feeling has long been a strength of songwriter and vocalist Robin Dann, and the conversational lyrics which emerged present a new dimension in which the artist uses this gift.
Writing (and singing) to a dearly missed friend on "Underneath My Toe," Dann's correspondence is underscored by a cozy melody, with feather-light funk occasionally breaking up the comforting imagery: "Time feels like it's moving too fast / But I know a good thing will last." The detailed production and vocal arrangement of "Barbara, It's Your Tree" evoke the soft sway of the nonagenarian subject's favourite wizened willow as Dann encourages new growth and staying grounded through turbulence: "I know you hold onto feeling / It's always so attached to time / But now's the moment for healing." Amid the lush, soft rock production of  "Are You Breathing," the vocalist questions in their encouraging chorus, "Do you need help? Are you on the shelf?" before direct offers of assistance: "How can I loosen all the tightest knots? / How can I puff up your halo?"
Knowing Cruisin's barnyard background, it's hard to miss the ruralist pace Bernice are perfectly content to play at. The soothing, cyclical "Begin Again" brings to mind wide-open space and big skies with its gentle guitar figures — as Dann sings of the sun's stare and the call of coyotes — and even bigger questions inhabitants could ponder on the farmhouse porch. Getting even more insular, "Yoohoo" finds Dann "weaving slowly down the path of my invention" to ultimately express, "Isn't it crazy / Isn't it amazing being alive."
The experimentation of Cruisin' plays out as if it were blooms suddenly bursting in the natural world these songs inhabit. For all the oddities found in "Second Judy" — sudden slides between intervals, playful orchestral hits, and a chorus of whistlers among them — it sticks the landing with morning birdsong and strings. "I Am Brave" is 44 seconds of rhythmic internal monologue to keep around for times one feels the opposite. I have blessedly had the recorder lead of "To Live on Carrots" soundtrack my view of a rabbit chomping weeds in my backyard. The spectral "7" is a fitting end to the trip, as if the glittering city skyline has come into view while riding down the DVP.

(Telephone Explosion)

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