It seems to me that, each in their own way, musicians strive to create something beautiful – but for me, the truly beautiful songs are, for want of a better phrase, slightly fucked up. A little weird. Never too polished, with a certain roughness around the edges. (This is a trait I also look for in dates. Note to self: this is a terrible, terrible idea.) Anything which is too polished loses its certain special something. It is hard, sometimes, for a musician to figure out how clean is too clean, or how dirty is just dirty enough, but the Montreal band Braids tread that fine line just right.
I first found out about Braids through Blue Hawaii, the ambient electro side-project of singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston. I saw Blue Hawaii live for the first time at this year’s SXSW, and my love for Standell-Preston’s clear, engaging voice was cemented. Having worked my way through 2011’s Native Speaker and this year’s In Kind // Amends EP, I was definitely ready for some new Braids to shovel inside my headphones on one of the many, many van drives which make up my current existence. (Drive to airport; sleep on plane; drive to gig; sleep on bench/floor/other casual daytime rest spot; play gig; drive to place where it is more appropriate to sleep; repeat.)
For me, great music is all about contrast. Braids set almost nursery-rhyme-style melodies and vocal hooks against less obvious lyrical content and twisted, tripped-out production, keeping anything from sounding too saccharine. Opening track “Victoria” sets the precedent for Standell-Preston’s dark lyrical style, beginning with the line “My father always said to get out of my head”; by contrast, the music is lush and full. Different textures are important to Flourish // Perish, as in the switch between sprawling musical soundscapes in the opening passages of “Hossak” and “Together,” and the various hooky melodic loops and vocal patterns throughout the record.
Much has been made by some in the media about the departure of keyboardist Katie Lee prior to recording this album. Whatever the circumstances — #noneofyourbusiness #nosyjournalists — the music, from this listener’s perspective, at least, has not suffered in the slightest. In fact, Flourish // Perish sees Braids go further with their electronic experimentation than before, yet still maintains the strong melodic core that is integral to their sound.
Standell-Preston’s vocal delivery is borderline phenomenal throughout the album. Some critics make much of the Björk similarities, and sure, there are the Björkian harsh consonants but Standell-Preston can flit quickly from those more severe sounds to elongated notes over one vowel, nailing a beautiful chorus hook before heading right back again. Her soaring vocal in “December,” lightly hitting each high note with precision but seemingly little effort, is offset by the urgent drumming and percussion of bandmates Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith.
Her singing is never one-dimensional, at times delicate and incredibly precise, and at other points much more assertive, aggressive, guttural but always equally passionate and emotive. I have always had a theory that there is a difference between vocalists and singers. A vocalist can hit all the notes, have an incredible range and technical skill, but still feel somehow lacking. On the other hand, a great singer might not have the stereotypically best voice, but their idiosyncrasies enable them to convey emotions, thoughts and themes in a way which a great vocalist could never do. (See the Elliott Smiths and Conor Obersts of this world.) Standell-Preston possesses just enough of each school to make her vocal performances onFlourish // Perish incredibly engaging.
The vocal production on “Ebben” is especially interesting: Raphaelle’s voice in the verse feels so close and so intimate before bursting into a choral swell in a song which perfectly represents the beautiful yet glitchy and slightly wonky sound of Braids, juxtaposing the perfect and the imperfect just so. But the closing track, “In Kind,” is probably my favourite of the record, due to the built-in tension and intensity in the instrumentation and — you guessed it — because of the vocal. (I’m not playing favourites, honest — I just think she’s great.) In this final song, the voice is almost another instrument, soundtracking as well as providing structure at other points. Standell-Preston creates sounds with her mouth that are almost scat/nonsense in some places; she’s unafraid of splitting syllables over many notes, but it’s never over-complicated — again, it’s down to her delivery.
For me, a song or a record which I can go back to again and again is one which connects with me in the first instance — as any great pop music can — but is smart enough to have more layers (lyrically, instrumentally, or in terms of production) that make me want to go back and reassess what I first thought. That’s why Flourish // Perish lends itself to further investigation. I will be giving it many more listens on my many long tour bus drives this autumn.