By oh so many indications, 2011 is set to be the year that post-rock finally strikes it big. There is no official explanation as to why, save for saying that the sound is simply evolving and other elements are being incorporated into the more traditional post-rock sound. Of course post-rock in and of itself is a hazy term, loose on purpose to be a catch-all for stuff that sticks out like a sore thumb when placed against a standard 3.5 minute pop song. As such it’s experimental and more often than not immensely beautiful no matter if a band is using four electric guitars or a whole orchestra to get a point across. There’s also a solid rejection of verse-chorus-verse structuring, catchy hooks, and short, to-the-point statements. Post-rock is an adventure, a journey into the vast and unknown wilderness where discovery is half the fun. It is the realm of Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, along with Mogwai and Tortoise and Pelican. Thanks to a band like Braids and their debut record “Native Speaker” though, a musical genre that has reached something of a standard way of going about things gets reinvigorated with a few curveballs.
When reaching for their comparison chart, there’s probably higher than a 50% chance most people will try to define Braids as supremely indebted to Animal Collective. “They’re like Animal Collective, only if they came from Montreal,” somebody will say or write. While there are some similarities between the two groups, such as the somewhat liberal use of gurgling electronics and an overall natural flow to the song arrangements, there are far more differences worth paying close attention to. Braids doesn’t have much in the way of filtered/warped vocals (outside of the occasional echo effect) or harmonies. You can also understand and make sense of what singers Raphaelle Standell-Preston and Kathie Lee are singing. To put it another way, the vocals are “decipherable and intelligible”. They’re also not nearly part of the hippy-trippy freak-folk movement, because while a number of their songs are in the 6-8 minute range, there’s not a singular moment that feels over-extended or jam band-y. Think less psychedelic and more of a shoegaze-inspired pop thanks to creative arrangements and not a whole lot in the way of instrumental passages (save for the last track on the record). Of course that description doesn’t even suffice for this band, as they are notoriously hard to pin down into any one sound for too long. That’s largely why it’s easiest to put the band underneath the larger umbrella known as post-rock. Despite the apparant variations in styles from one song to the next, there are so many elements that hold steady across the record that everything comes off as striking and organic and exciting. Fuck genre tropes, Braids are content to carve their own path through this wilderness landscape.
“Native Speaker” begins with the first single and much-hyped track “Lemonade”, and it’s one hell of an introduction to Braids. While the sound of a babbling brook or creek may be confined to the opening track alone, it’s largely a statement for the entire record. The music softly and beautifully moves along, twisting and turning and moving around rocks or whatever else might be in the way. Somewhere in the distance a bird chirps, frogs jump around for fun, and occasionally a deer will come by for a drink. It takes over two minutes for “Lemonade” to reach a chorus, but that’s of little consequence since that time was so well spent building layer upon layer as keyboards pile on electronic elements pile on booming drums and finally guitars. Standell-Preston’s vocals hold a calm demeanor when they first come in, but that gets thrown pretty much to hell once she raises her voice to ask, “Have you fucked/all the stray kids yet?”. When the chorus does finally land, it’s a scorned scorcher, as the lines, “what I’ve found/is that we/are all just sleeping around” soar like they were launched off a mountaintop. The immediate lesson, and one that’s equally learned by most every track on the album, is that you don’t fuck with Raphaelle Standell-Preston in both vocal strength/range and personally as well. At seconds under 4.5 minutes, “Plath Heart” is the shortest song on “Native Speaker”, and it’s a synth-fueled dreamscape with an almost Dirty Projectors-esque bent to it. The vocals are practically cutesy and playful and a keyboard-created steel drum pushes that vibe further, but the lyrics betray that with a little bit of anti-relationship sentiment. That’s where the title really comes into play, because if you know how dark and depressing Sylvia Plath’s writing is, you know that a Plath heart isn’t something worth smiling about. A lovely lullaby is how the 8+ minute “Glass Deers” begins, with the keyboards lightly plinking as if singing you to sleep. The vocals play along too, even when Standell-Preston repeats over and over again about how she’s “fucked up”. Eventually though, while the melody remains on a lovely even keel, the vocals soar to an extreme as Standell-Preston begins to yell at the impressive level of Bjork or Karen O. That quiet-loud-quiet-loud singing trend continues for the duration while the lyrics are a bit more upbeat about loving someone even with all their faults. The atmospherics continue with the title track, in which the main part of the melody are a couple of quiet keyboards and a looped electronic bit that simply float in the ether. Not content to just let it sit there though, guitars and random noises begin to permeate the mix, piling on top of one another the way that great post-rock songs do. Harmonies are introduced, the vocals soar yet again, and then in a flash, all is quiet once more before the track goes gentle into that good night after 8.5 minutes of writhing around.
Have you ever been in an apartment or hotel room when a very loud rave is happening right next door? You can hear a muffled version of the beats through the wall and they totally keep you up as you’re trying to sleep. “Lammicken” exploits that sort of noise as the backing melody, along with a looped and melodic “ohhhhaaahhhohhhh”, both of which are the only two constant things about the track. “I can’t stop it,” Standell-Preston sings over and over again with varying degrees of forcefulness. Through it all, white electro-static builds and builds up in the mix, and as already mentioned, there’s no way to stop it. It overtakes everything else near the end of the song, before finally abruptly quitting in the last 30 seconds as the original backing melody plays the track out in a much more ominous fashion than before. A series of synths layered on top of one another mixed with some drum rim hits is how “Same Mum” begins, and once the playful vocals come in it becomes one of Braids’ poppiest and most immediate songs despite lacking a legitimate chorus. Some lightly picked Grizzly Bear-like guitar comes in about mid-way through the track, shortly before a 2 minute instrumental breakdown that also has some xylophone making an appearance. The final 90 seconds brings a slow down in tempo as the guitars disappear and vocals return with Standell-Preston providing interesting variations on the phrase, “We are from the same mum”. That’s the last thing she says on the entire record as we’re then led into the instrumental closer “Little Hand”. Beginning as a spacey, pulsating deep synth, keyboards begin to plink out a jaunty little melody that’s practically the sonic equivalent of twinkling stars. Carefully picked guitars weave themselves in and out of the mix as there’s just a hint of Sigur Ros-like atmosphere, even if there is no build to a huge crescendo. Instead, the melody slowly fades away as gently and calmly as things began.
What makes Braids so interesting is their ability to sustain a melody no matter how long or short a track might be. Their five minute songs are just as great as their eight minute ones because they all feel like they’re going somewhere. Even if a track only has one line in it, repeated ad nauseum, it’s the WAY the line is sung, along with the sounds surrounding it that keep the listener fully engaged. As such, Raphaelle Standell-Preston deserves much of the credit for her powerful and highly expressive vocal performance that soars far above and beyond your average female singer. The rest of the band are by no mean slouches either though, as the tracks on “Native Speaker” end up being not so much songs but immense compositions that are complicated even when they sound remarkably simple. The only spots where the quality dips on the album is near the end. After establishing a moody intensity on the two 8+ minute epics in the middle of the album, attempts to rise back up again at a more brisk pace don’t ever fully succeed despite their best efforts. It never gets boring, it just all sort of blends together in one cohesive piece of slow burn, synth-filled post-rock that’s simply not as distinctive as everything that came before it. Despite this, “Native Speaker” is most definitely one of the best records that will be released this month, and Braids one of the best up-and-coming bands you’ll hear about in 2011. There was a pretty heavy load of hype surrounding the band heading into their debut, and the good news is that most of it is justified. There’s room for improvement, but when your first album is as good as this one, Braids might just be one record away from truly becoming a universally respected and beloved band. It’s almost ironic that they also just happen to be from Montreal.