opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN
What’s in a feeling? Devoid of scientific logic, conventional wisdom considers emotion among the least quantifiable aspects of human experience. Because the effect of music on our emotions appears to bypass structural logic, we tend to think of music as an emotional medium. Pop, at least, is in subterranean collusion with the notion that feelings are too complicated to consider in their own right. Pop establishes a set of cohesive forms that correlate to certain emotional registers, suggesting the need for signs and codification in the emotional realm. Carly Rae Jepsen’s really, really, really, really, really great recent single “I Really Like You” works because it sounds so much like giddy infatuation. Or does it? Does “I Really Like You” sound like the feeling it evokes in us or does it evoke that feeling because we’ve long been trained, on cultural and individual scales, to respond emotionally to certain forms in certain pre-designated, supposedly correlative ways? In other words, the forms of pop music are often employed to “pin down” a particular feeling as if emotions were butterflies to catch and encase, but what if feelings, by nature, can’t be isolated in that way? What if they don’t reduce to single moments, or have solid bodies? What if they’re like “cloud[s] / across the mind, / …just billow[ing] by,” as vocalist/keyboardist Raphaelle Standell-Preston sings on “Happy When”, from Braids’ new album Deep in the Iris?
The Montreal band Braids have posed these and related questions since 2008. Although they haven't composed music in light of their fellow Canadian’s “I Really Like You”, one could substitute it for pretty much any pop song and the nature of the question would not change. At their worst and least engaging – I quite liked 2013’s Flourish // Perish, but its reception was lukewarm – Braids make music that’s abstract and cerebral, music that sounds downright extraterrestrial, a prospect that’s intriguing in theory but cold in practice. More often, though, there’s something productive about calling Braids’ work “alien.” For, if music theory and neuroscience can offer valid methods for examining the emotional life of pop music, Braids offer an alternative. Braids don’t demand that affective response rise to the standards of empirical logic. Instead, they allow for feelings, devoting much of their work to the rigorous musical exploration of emotional experience. What gets termed, with surprising frequency, an “alien” quality in Braids’ music is better described as their habit of expressing human feelings without assuming the associated pop form – a way of making the ordinary sound unfamiliar by examining it more than is common. “Alien”? To the contrary. Braids are rigorous, hyper-sensitive, and human. They “sit down / with emotion” and “take the time to feel it” (“Happy When”). That this scans as distant to a not-inconsiderable portion of critics who’ve written about Braids’ past work speaks to just how rare a project it is.
Language – one of pop’s primary sites for inventing the correlation of form with response – breaks down in the process. Banal experiences become surreal and disruptive. The narrator of “Sore Eyes” watches a porn video with a dreamlike cognitive dissonance that mutates into brutal realism and back again. Similes collapse, analogies rupture. A dog’s fur is “soft like the sunshine,” contentment is “warm like summer,” the masturbating woman in “Sore Eyes” ends up “feeling gross and choked like everything I don’t want to be a part of.” When “eyes go running” and the sentence finishes “like a fountain” (“Warm Like Summer”), the obviousness of the imagery is jarring and a little clunky in the context of a Braids song. The ossified language of the hoariest clichés gets exploded. Where lines like “We experience the love that we think we deserve,” “We can’t explain why we hurt the ones we love most of all,” and “The hardest part is letting go” – lines that, in another context, would merit ridicule – don’t carry even a faint whiff of irony, but instead register as palpable waves of shame, shock, and yearning. The sense is that words, like the emotions they signify, are often done a disservice by simplification, codification, and careless overuse. Braids are listening to their meanings.
More than her lyricism, a great deal of this effect has to do with Standell-Preston’s remarkable technique. She’s part of a lineage of challenging vocalists that includes Laetitia Sadier, Elizabeth Fraser, Sue Tompkins, and Ponytail’s Willy Siegel, people whose treatment of language is at its most expressive when it’s incomprehensible and whose most intelligible lyrics lend themselves to mishearings. When Standell-Preston sings, “The hardest part is letting go,” she arranges her breath and enunciation so that the whole rhythm of the sentence is thrown off, to the point where words as well-worn as these take some deciphering. Her unusual phrasing makes the mundane seem new again. Standell-Preston distends and torques her lyrics into elaborate melismas. She swings from a whisper to a wail and back again, elastic. In these ways, she works toward the expression of something at once more primal and more complex than the standard grammar of songwriting can incorporate. What makes her wondrously dynamic performances work is the way they synthesize with the instruments. Together, Standell-Preston, percussionist Austin Tufts, and guitarist/bassist Taylor Smith compose rich, expansive, proggy soundscapes of piano, manipulated vocal clips, live and programmed drums, and assorted guitar effects. While not disinterested in refrains, their songs tend to defy ABABCB structure. A Braids song is more liquid. It will end up somewhere drastically far from where it began. Repeat listening is a must, just so the contours and connections can be better understood.
This principle mirrors the flow of the songs’ verbal narratives, which often resemble tumbles down the rabbit-hole of ugly feelings. In “Sore Eyes”, a woman’s attempts to stimulate herself with pornography lead into a panicked confrontation with her own sexist complicity and complacency, a development not anticipated by the sexual fantasy with which the song begins. The searing “Miniskirt” moves in the other direction, commencing as a snarling, focused attack on everyday misogyny and then opening up into a personal reverie of words, affects, dreams, and memories before relating the two halves with a final howl: “My little miniskirt, it’s mine, all mine!” At an earlier stage in Braids’ career, these same tendencies resulted in songs that drifted and ran long, taking their time to probe their way through to a natural resting place (the average track length on debut LP Native Speaker hovered around seven minutes). Deep in the Iris is a major progression in that Standell-Preston, Tufts, and Smith have learned how to write a song that communicates the same amount of information in half the time. Deep in the Iris is Braids’ most focused, disciplined, and accessible work, without suffering any kind of dilution.
If anything, Deep in the Iris is more concentrated than anything Braids have released to date. If its runtime is more approachable, the songs themselves are also more intense. The record doesn’t fade into the background the way Flourish // Perish could at times. It seizes attention and engages the listener’s emotions. In taking “the time to feel,” Braids have arrived at a kind of piercing, white-hot immediacy that can be hard to bear. They’re just showing us ourselves, refusing to pull punches. B+