Braids | Native Speaker (Kanine)

Its pulsing instrumentation, reverb-drenched vocals and unapologetic length perfectly set the tone for the rest of the album.

There’s a certain sense of preciousness that has gained prevalence in indie music within the past few years—a whimsical, Neverland-esque feeling that permeates the music and lyrics. Like any aspect of a particular idiom that becomes a trend, it can easily be stripped of its genuine qualities. However, it can still exist in the bands that find it naturally. Braids is one of those bands.
Now calling Montreal home, the four young members of Braids—Raphaelle Standell-Preston (vocals, guitar), Taylor Smith (guitar, bass, vocals), Katie Lee (keyboard, vocals) and Austin Tufts (drums, vocals)—formed the band just before leaving high school. They have recently signed to the Brooklyn-based Kanine Records and are preparing for the release of their debut LP, Native Speaker.
Braids, as a band name, is perfectly suited for this quartet. There’s a feeling of perpetual motion in the music as it intertwines and twists around itself. Delayed notes wrap around melodies; melodies move in and out of each other in counterpoint; time signatures slowly and subtly transform, with the occasional, unexpected twist and turn along the way. But just as the songs openly show their construction as they’re slowly built over time, the band members show just as much patience unknotting them. Harmonies and counter-melodies are pared off, complex rhythms deconstructed, until all that’s left is what the song started with. All the while, the noteworthy voice of Standell-Preston floats atop equally noteworthy technical instrumentation, showing the influences of Kate Bush and Björk.
One of the most impressive feats of Native Speaker is that it was self-recorded and self-produced. This fact simultaneously augments the ingenuousness of the album’s sound and showcases how well-developed the young members of Braids are. There’s a crispness to the guitars and synths, as well as much of the added vocal effects, reminiscent of Brian Eno’s soundscapes. This allows for many layers to be added while still maintaining a feeling of space in the mix. The same principle could be applied to the lyrics. There’s plenty being said, but chosen words are sparse and often ambiguous, allowing the listener to exist in the songs.
Native Speaker’s opener and lead single, “Lemonade,” is equal parts enthusiastic and strung-out and clocks in just under seven minutes. Its pulsing instrumentation, reverb-drenched vocals and unapologetic length perfectly set the tone for the rest of the album.
The darker, yet still pop-driven, “Plath Heart” is easily the closest version of a verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus form that the album uses. With that being said, though, it is still a relatively unorthodox arrangement that yields a few of the album’s most interesting and memorable melodies, a great drum beat and the most extensive and involved set of lyrics out of any of the seven songs.
“Glass Deers” shows the powerful expansiveness of Standell-Preston’s vocal abilities; sudden bursts of emotion and outrage weave themselves through a phlegmatic lamination. Everything comes together about six and a half minutes in where vocal lines swarm around each other, and the guitar and drums step up to meet the ferocity.
The eponymous track, “Native Speaker,” the most sparse track on the album, is a sonic collage that employs swells of piano, manipulated electro-acoustics and chopped bits of backing vocals that repeat at varying speeds, much like the early looping techniques of Steve Reich.
“Lammicken” is four and a half minutes (short by the rest of the album’s standards) of musical and emotional crescendos, and it builds into a wall of sound that dismembers itself just before breaking. “Same Mum” exhibits interestingly rhythmic guitar work over a bed of pulsing keyboards and stick clicks, as Standell-Preston’s vocals travel in and out. The album closes with “Little Hand,” an array of dancing instrumentation over a catchy bass hook that sounds somewhat like a dénouement to everything that came before it.
All in all, Native Speaker is an experimental collection of ideas laced with pop sensibilities, and is ultimately very entertaining. To call Braids’ debut album repetitious would be attempting to call it out on its very nature, to call it overly idiosyncratic would be to fault it for what makes it unique and to shun it as avant-garde would be dismissive. And while Native Speaker’s lengthy songs, unorthodox arrangements and highly stylistic sound may alienate some listeners, it’s definitely worth listening to, as Braids is a new band deserving of a chance to make its voice heard. B+ | Matthew Treon
RIYL: Animal Collective, Terry Riley, The Middle East, The Givers, Joanna Newsome

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