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Jem is a beguiling display of Bernard + Edith's influences, with room to grow and transcend

Release date: 11 May 2015
Bernard and Edith Jem
08 May 2015, 11:30 Written by Jon Putnam
No, they aren’t the sweet octogenarian couple a few houses down sat on their little stone bench in their backyard rose garden. Nay, Bernard + Edith are none other than the spry Manchester synthpop duo of Greta Carroll and Nick Delap. Peddling their wares via their antiquated middle names, the pair seem intent to confound on their debut LP, Jem, beyond their deceiving stage names, appearing in Arabic on the album’s cover, which features shot of three arms lain across a wavy surface of crushed blue velvet. It’s curious and exotic, often like the musical contents within, but come to find out, it’s something intimate and personal – a photo of Carroll’s mother and grandmother, hand in hand, taken by her mother shortly after her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis.

Having recently reviewed the equally fine Acute Feast by another male/female synthpop duo, OOFJ, it’s interesting to comparatively see how different artists approach, as I alluded to there, the relatively limited confines their musical setup has to offer. Just like OOFJ, Bernard + Edith succeed at creating intimacy and a tangibility of emotion with their arrangements, despite their electronically constructed origins. But whereas the former projected a widescreen cinema that engulfed the senses, Carroll and Delap’s are more akin to a body of water, lapping at your feet, rising gradually only to retreat at the proper times. Jem’s enigmatic cover isn’t simply a red herring; as OOFJ emits the noir intrigue of Russian film, Bernard + Edith turn to the beguiling sounds of the Middle and Far East.

The opening triptych of “Wurds”, “Dagger”, and “Crocodile” roll out the duo’s aesthetic, Carroll’s vocals winding through Delap’s snaking basslines, his twinkling synths wafting and simmering around her. The latter of the three proves an uncanny display of their Cocteau Twins influence, as their well-documented trip-hop and Twins Peak influences permeate throughout Jem. While the album’s opening half represents a tasty Bernard + Edith primer, its delicate intrigue begins to meander come the bisecting instrumental, “China”. True to its name, the track conjures a dewy Chinese mountainside setting, providing a respite setting up the listener for Jem’s more impressive second half. Beyond here, Carroll’s and Delap’s vocals and compositions grow more bold and, often times, more sinister.

“Heartache” seizes right out of the gate, Delap’s deep, bulbous drone a perfect foil for Carroll’s diving and scaling vocals, the album’s prime testament to her love of the soulful virtuosity of vocal Jazz. Chiming in like a Buddhist temple bell, lead single “Poppy” morphs into wonky, reverberating arpeggios that fold under layering club beats, Carroll underpinned by Delap’s and her own multi-tracked bass vocal harmony. Come “Rosemary”s revisiting of the album’s more measured first half, the track here fits more as a complementary piece on the second half rather than one of a feather, were it housed earlier on. These tracks proudly display the duo’s clear ability to distill not only their obvious pop/rock influences into a tantalising whole, but also their outside inspiration such as the aforementioned Jazz and Soul influence on Carroll’s vocals and her and Delap’s interest in the visual arts in the way they can create such a palpable mood and scene with their music.

Jem is an auspicious debut, a worthy volley from a city whose popular music reputation has been built on genre splicing and boundary pushing that’s sat a bit quiet as of late. Bernard + Edith tend to play it a bit close to the vest with their influences, but what a dizzying concoction of them it is, and the duo seem well primed to, sooner rather than later, absorb and transcend them.

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