Burs - Holding Patterns (Album Review)

'Psychedelic' is an odd genre classification. The 'psy' suggests something heady; music that feels like you've taken mind-bending narcotics. And while the destination of the genre might be a floaty headspace, the means of transportation needn't be long-haired chaps wailing out endless guitar solos. This is proven by Torontonian psych-folk outfit Burs, who rely on melody, style, and long-form, wandering songs to sow in the listener their perception of reality. Of course, psych-folk is not a new genre, yet Burs infuse their breezy songs with a pop innocence not often found in the 'psychedelic' tag. Devendra Banhart has been incorporating pop hooks into freak folk for years, and Alvvays have been scuzzing up their sincere candy floss for a not-so-hot minute too, but perhaps it's at the intersection of these references, the obscure yet good freak-folk of Banhart and the stylish execution of Alvvays where Burs nestle themselves.

Burs are composed of vocalist and guitarists Lauren Dillen and Ray Goudy, bassist Devon Savas, and drummer Oliver Compton, though piano, pads, and felt box duties are shared among the group. Amy Peck and Alex George make sax and string contributions on three tracks to lovely effect, like on the opening track, "The Year Now", when Peck's notes are dreamily arranged around gritty post-rock. On this track, however, Dillen is the star and communicates nuanced emotion with precision, undoubtedly asserting herself as a talented frontperson. 

Dillen and Goudy harmonise nicely on "Try", a sort of candlelight-soft midwest-emo folk. The accessible "Lily" is a snappy and up-tempo number that is only missing a memorable line for its sticky melody. The off-kilter chamber pop of "Fields" sees country-jamboree fiddle merge with dreamy harmonies and warm acoustics. Some lyrics are downright silly (I'm at my own funeral mass / And at the service with open casket / Play pin the tail on the ass) and incongruous with the familiar psych-folk sound. That's how Burs assert their obscurity, by taking pastiche templates and imbuing them with an obtuse and self-aware narrative. 

They're not always haughty, however. The neatly fingerpicked and sung "Nearly" offers a more intimate and touching moment, replete with confessional lyrics and charming textures. The deadpan beauty is reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens or The Books, though the intertwining and distinctively opposing timbre of the vocals keeps the song fresh for its entirety. On "Oliver", Dillen proves she is the vocal driving force of Burs. Though Goudy, in his expertly enunciated and sultry croon, is more than an exciting entertainer, Dillen is special when her talent for mood is brought to the fore. Let "Oliver" draw you in, and then enjoy the delicious saxophone of Amy Peck. The bare "Hunger" features Dillen's atmosphere-bending voice with a reliable guitar and beguiling ambient swirls. Maudlin, no doubt, but also highly effective. The experimental "Hard Love" is six minutes of shifting patterns; radio-friendly songwriting, chaotic post-punk outbursts, and cavernous ambient walled by heavily reverbed and delayed mystery instruments. 

Holding Patterns is a fantastically formed album by a band that knows how to find its natural rhythm. These songs psyche you out because Burs use traditional structures to hint at and often go to unique places; the melodies and moods make it a fruitful journey.