[19 January 2011]
PopMatters Music Editor
If a debut album is about making the most of your growing pains and the touch-and-go process of finding the right balance between indulgence and innovation, then blogosphere darlings Braids are on the right track with Native Speaker. Like an ambitious but sometimes unruly first draft, Native Speaker is an artistically daring effort with enough fascinating parts to it that you’re willing to overlook how pulling in the reins could’ve brought more out of Braids’ best ideas. On those terms, the comparisons floating online to Animal Collective in its early days seem apt for the young Montreal-based quartet, as a group that needs a little more room to run with its imagination, even if that means it takes longer for you—and probably the band itself—to figure out where it’s headed. Certainly, Braids aren’t holding anything back on Native Speaker, crafting a set of sprawling avant-pop indie songs that sticks to an uncompromising creative vision.
Putting its best foot forward at very start, Native Speaker makes a striking first impression with “Lemonade”, an under-the-radar tour-de-force that sneaks up on you as it develops and blossoms in its own time and in its own way. A big canvas for Braids to work with, “Lemonade” is an expertly arranged collage of found sounds, Merriweather Post Pavilion-lite synths, and, most obviously, singer-guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s vocal flights-of-fancy. Mixing and matching sonic textures that should get in each other’s way but actually complement one another, the interplay of hazy, mesmerizing atmospherics and stirring psychothriller jolts elevate the song’s lyrics about slacker romance rituals (“And what I’ve found / Is that we / Are all just sleeping around,” the chorus goes) into something almost ethereal and elemental.
Recalling the approachable experimentalism of contemporaries like Glasser and Warpaint, Braids are able to explore their artsty-fartsy impulses without sacrificing a more accessible side that helps listeners appreciate the weirder touches all the more. As on “Lemonade”, the group lets its freak flag fly on “Plath Heart” and “Glass Deers” not to put on airs, but with a sense of purpose that’s at the service of the songs. The closest thing to a single on Native Speaker, “Plath Heart” compresses the band’s all-over-the-place noise play and shapes it into something more concise and compact. Everything seems sharper and more intense on it, from the clanging, crashing percussion to the radiating keyboards to the high-pitched frenzy Standell-Preston’s voice whips up. On the other hand, Braids run in another direction on “Glass Deers”, a more drawn-out and meditative piece that holds your attention even as it takes time for its drama to develop and unfold. But when it does, you can’t miss the moment Standell-Preston’s sweet, cooing vocals shift out of cruise control to crescendo in Kate Bush-like outbursts.
Of course, any young band that goes wherever the spirit moves it like this one can get a little carried away with some chin-stroking and excessive noodling. There’s a noticeable lull smack dab in the middle of Native Speaker, as if Braids are wandering around in search of more inspiration on the amorphous, abstract soundscapes of the title track and “Lammicken”. In particular, “Native Speaker” is eight minutes of too-subtle keyboard figures and washed-out reverb, so that when Standell-Preston’s banshee-like interjections surface, they seem like forced affectations without stronger, bolder instrumentation as a counterpoint. Similarly, the languid “Lammicken” dawdles and lollygags around until some energetic percussion shakes things up a bit near the end. Both cases go to show that Braids are still figuring out that editing is as much a part of the artistic process as stream-of-consciousness brainstorming.
Yet even if their musical imagination gets away from them sometimes, Braids still come out ahead in the bargain, because all their futzing around tends to strike on unique and engaging combinations more often than not. Native Speaker ends as it started, on a high note: The hauntingly intense “Save Mum” makes Braids come off like an updated indie-techno version of early Throwing Muses, while the instrumental closing track “Little Hand” tries something completely different by not relying on Standell-Preston’s voice to convey feeling, evoking a sense of fragility and warmth through lightly syncopated synth and guitar lines. As with most of Native Speaker, the final track offers Braids yet another fruitful lead to pursue, suggesting that, as solid and impressive as this debut is, it’s even better to think of it as a building block for a promising future.