Montreal seems to induce the artistry of its citizens year after year from its cafe-lined streets, art festivals, and general embrace of the avant-garde while encouraging established artists’ neighborhoods in a similar fashion to the States’ counterpart cultural capitals of San Francisco, New Orleans, NYC, Austin, Boston, and Chicago. Artists of any medium find themselves ambling the Quartier Latin’s tree-lined streets as they cross the Ville-Marie borough en route to countless art spaces, indie film-houses, and performance piazza spaces found throughout. Name dropping contemporary bands from Montreal’s buzzing art scene becomes almost second nature since 2000: Indie – Arcade Fire; Post-rock – Godspeed You! Black Emperor; College Rock – Wolf Parade; Electronica – Tim Hecker, etc etc. While the list goes on, what’s more impressive is the breadth of musical genres that seem to emanate from the Francophonie’s North American darling locale as if these styles had matured in the Canadian port city before ever having been experimented with in other North American hubs. Milestone albums are birthed within several different genres in Montreal thus maintaining a sense of excitement in what’s coming out next from the scene. While there isn’t any particular “Montreal Sound,” there’s a knack for native music being “Fresh Like Montreal.”
Braids is an electronic indie group hailing from Calgary, CN currently feeding off the creative powers of Montreal by way of McGill University where these high school friends have refined their eclectic tastes into a blend that is uniquely their own. Notable for their self-assured audacity, this band is learning how to play with great gravity while displaying great taste and patience with their timbres and tones.
For people so inclined to musical arts, playing music with great emotion and gravity is the highest ideal of every performance, every rehearsal, every piece written that has been worked over and over again by the eager musician. It’s easy to begin speeding the tempo and amplifying the sound in an effort to evoke the kind of emotional sentiment the artists feel when they play. With time, musicians find that softened timbre and playing low volume with great emotion marks the artists who are closer to transcendence. Newly a trio, Braids elicit frank happiness, melancholy, and dreaminess with the volume low and the tempo leisurely. Their music moves languidly and with disorienting drum rhythms underlying organic synth tones that fill tons of space with humble arpeggios, echoes, and hardly any attack at all. Singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston employs her ethereal soprano over shimmering synth with patient crescendoes that deliver the punchline. In their debut album Native Speaker, her words cut at the soul when she opened the gates and resonated from her diaphragm with unexpected yelps and melody jumps. On Flourish / / Perish she is so much more restrained it almost doesn’t sound like the same person. And that goes for the entire record, really. As a band, they have relaxed the tension of Native Speaker and with their new lower volume have found a compelling, but safer, musical niche to employ their talents.
If Flourish / / Perish were their debut, it would be necessary to release Native Speaker next. The two albums are integrally tied, they work in any order. Native Speaker has immediacy, aggression, and a youthfulness noted in any group that has artistic earnestness. Flourish / / Perish is the wiser of the two. It is more patient with a more somber cadence. Definitely less exuberant but with more weight. Never nonchalant, but always sincere. However, the album can become longwinded to a fault especially by around the midway point. There’s less fire in this record, more world-weariness. For those who have the patience, though, the album finishes with a life-affirming grandiosity in the final three tracks; “Amends”, “Jupiter”, and “In Kind”. These tracks stand as a bridge between the two records. The muscle from Native Speaker evidences itself here but with more patience and less obviousness. In a way, these three tracks represent the best work the band has ever put out and feels exquisitely signature to what Braids alone is capable of. The sound is fresh, explosive, and somehow the long-winded tracks carry a consistent pulsation despite the very jagged rhythms and patient synth lines that overstay expected meter-counts in perfectly orchestrated statements. Braids reflect their self-assured attitude in strong form here with multiple motifs blending together, thus forging a fresh take on the tiring genre of ambient-electronica-singer-songwriter-indie-etc-etc.
Braids’ “In Kind”
The final track “In Kinds” also carries the only moment of vocal tension in the whole record and it’s damned welcomed after the long six minutes building up to it, not to mention the entire first forty-five minutes of the record before it. But this is Braids exerting their attitude. Not to be boxed in to their debut album’s appeal, Braids here showcase their melodic sensibilities, avant-garde song structure, and decidedly shout out “SO THERE!” for all to hear. They aren’t going to give in to stereotype. They’re not content to have the hits and swells and beats all line up with the expectations laid upon electronic music from the genre’s fan base.
In a sense this is refreshing. It sounds good on paper. But the album itself does exhibit a certain slight drag for the first 40 minutes or so which was surprising on first listen. While it’s very pretty, very textural, and generally agreeable to the ear, it lacks the substance that seemed to explode from the speakers on their debut. It’s almost like Braids listened to Native Speaker and feelt ashamed of their youthfulness. But the imperfections of Raphaelle’s inflections and the exuberant synth arpeggiations on their debut gave it that characteristic energy which marked it for repeated listens even years later. Flourish / / Perish seems to represent Braids’ refinement of their sound, but towards something too safe and polished. This isn’t what made them the precocious Canadian electronic songwriters of the year in 2011.
The album’s final three tracks of “Amends,” “Juniper,” and “In Kinds” are stellar efforts that showcase what Braids is capable of, but it’s up to them to not be afraid of the rough edges on future releases. Somewhere inside the trio’s members souls, Native Speaker and Flourish / / Perish will meet halfway forging a contemporary powerhouse of sonic experimentation. But until Braids embraces this personality, drawing from the best of both albums, they will continue to lie under the radar as a capable yet otherwise run-of-the-mill electronic musicians in the eyes of the average music listener. Let’s hope that Braids can find again their inspiration between the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers and up their game as their Montrealer peers have done in the new millennium. Let’s hope that on their next release Braids will embrace their destiny and capability to produce progressive electro-psych-rock music with the sort fire they brought forth on their debut complete with the newfound appreciation of sophisticated musicianship and tactful tones on Flourish / / Perish.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl | Senior Writer