[21 May 2010]
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of music genre titles. Every day, there’s a new one brewing on some blog or trend-setting review site, and the endless array of suffixes and prefixes (post-this, something-core, sub-that, whatever-step) has become so enveloping, it’s hard to remember what “rock” even means… or meant.
Braid, a short-lived Illinois four-piece formed in the early ‘90s, are one of the most influential bands in the sub-genre “post-hardcore”, which, for the unacquainted, basically boils down to a bunch of sweaty, barely twentysomething white dudes playing shouty, guitar-based emo with occasional time signature fluctuations and the potential for a moment or two of experimentation, infusing some of indie rock’s quirks of production style and instrumentation, and even the occasional moment of quiet effects-pedal beauty.
With the reissues of their first two albums, Frankie Welfare Boy Age Five and The Age of Octeen, Braid offer proof of the genre’s best and worst tendencies.
Frankie, originally released in 1995, is the sound of a band finding itself. Frequently awkward, periodically thrilling, completely confusing, and (at 26 tracks) far too lengthy, it sounds like what high school feels like. The dueling yelps of guitarists/vocalists Bob Nanna and Chris Broach are often painfully out of tune, and the living room production leaves Roy Ewing’s drums sounding like cheap play toys. The abrasiveness is shocking even for a genre founded on chaos and DIY technicality—it’s hard to shake the lingering feeling that your speakers might explode.
The most interesting moments arrive when the band explores their weirder tendencies. The jittery dual guitars and shouts in “Brass Knuckle Sandwich” are cathartic and hint at future cohesion, and the hilarious muted trumpet climax is a left-field sonic bitchslap. “Angel Falls” is a blissful blend of piano and quietly picked guitars that painfully ends before it fully blooms, and “Capricorn” manages to harness the hormonal angst into an urgent and powerful drive with propulsive rhythmic shifts that keep you on your toes.
With 1996’s The Age of Octeen, Braid cut the excess, boosted their production qualities, and created the first great album of their short career. Frequently overshadowed by its successor, Frame and Canvas, Octeen is an overlooked mini-masterpiece. It travels the same sonic trajectory as Frankie before it, but this time, the band actually managed to bring some songs to their energetic sound. Here, they created arrangements, not just chords and beats. There is a palpable sense of drama and yearning in “Eulalia, Eulalia”, where the screams sound warranted, not wedged-in. Even when the overlapping vocals are more emotive than on-key, well… at least they hit you in the gut like an emo sledgehammer. A true sign of maturity: the melancholic trumpet line is not played for laughs.
“My Baby Smokes” evokes the seductive, hazy imagery of its title, with shimmering, rolling toms and nervous guitars prodding with distorted unease. Not always going for the jugular, Braid demonstrate a penchant for mood, something sorely missing in the jumble of Frankie‘s exhausting aural assault. “Divers” is another textural triumph. Here the guitars caress then explode. The bass is a melodic sigh in the midst of the bloodletting: “I’ve done so many things to make you hate me / And I know it had nothing to do with me / But I wish you’d take it back”. Lyrics that, on paper, read like basic tenets of emo infatuation and youthful recklessness are rendered transcendent. They aren’t screaming because they can; they’re screaming because they can’t do anything else.
While Frankie still remains a diehards-only release, The Age of Octeen is larger than the genre trappings, an album capable of converting skeptics previously unwilling to look for beauty and creativity beneath the din.
By the time the final peaceful guitar squalls of “Autobiography” have faded into the adolescent abyss, Octeen (and Braid) have you in the palm of their hand, waiting for the next scream or burst of distortion to convey the tumult that spoken words cannot, shocked to find yourself thinking “it’s over too soon”.
“Post-hardcore?” If you must. Sounds more like “growing up”.