At times tuneful pop music, at others blissed-out drone rock, Braids’ 2011 debut unfolds like origami in reverse.
The story of Braids circa Native Speaker is the stuff of teenage dreams: four high school friends flee their hometown (Calgary), move to a big city (Montreal) and make a minor masterpiece of a debut album that caused The Globe & Mail’s Robert Everett-Green to declare “Somebody please take this record away from me. I can’t stop listening to it.” I remember reading Everett-Green’s review ten years ago and totally concurring with him. I had been listening to Native Speaker for the last six months — an advance copy landing in my physical mailbox far ahead of its release — and found it near impossible to turn off. Vocalist-guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s repeated words on “Lammicken” said it all then and ring true even now: once I start listening to Native Speaker, “I can’t stop it.”
Hearing Braids in 2010 and 2011 was like hearing a new language for the first time: familiar phonemes constructed with new intonations; consonants and syllables actively developing new phonology. At times tuneful pop music, at others blissed-out drone rock, Native Speaker unfolds like origami in reverse; each movement and action abstracting familiar tones and textures. Legend has it the quartet (Standell-Preston, Katie Lee on keyboards, Austin Tufts on drums, and Taylor Smith on bass, guitar, samples, and percussion) self-produced the album for under $500, only furthering its DIY mystique. Though it doesn’t take that close an inspection to hear their influences (Björk and Animal Collective among the most bandied about at the time), Native Speaker delivered Braids as a fully formed and articulated creative project all its own. They are in no rush to get to the heart of “Glass Deers”, whose slow, repetitive opening motif eventually reveals its beguiling charm as an album highlight. The title track is a delight; an aural dose of Ambien layering harmonies, random noise and voices, and a delicate blanket of noise that’s both a calming balm and trippy pleasure.
The thing about dreams, though (teenage type or otherwise) is that they all eventually end. Braids never sounded as innocent and unencumbered as they did with Native Speaker; each subsequent album bears the pressure of having to live up to a revered predecessor. The well-documented rift with founding member Katie Lee didn’t help either, but one of the downsides of delivering a stunning debut for any band is the burden of expectations and the fear of repeating oneself into irrelevancy. It’s a testament to Standell-Preston, Smith, and Tufts’ tenacity that they fundamentally retained the essence of what made Braids so special upon arrival while continuing to grow and develop their voice over the last decade.