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White Noise: Braids – Native Speaker

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Braids – Native Speaker

Guitar? Check. Drums, keys, bass? Check. Female vocalist with crazy voice who occasionally hurls out surprising obscenities? Check. So really, on paper Braids shape up to be exactly what everyone's doing right now, a fairly standard indie-rock group. But this album is both much much more than this and at the same time, curiously less.

What this album gets right, and more right than almost anything I've heard for a long time, are its sounds. Each individual track on this album is a vast, swirling soundscape of lush, natural samples and twinkling, spiralling synths that are completely enthralling at every turn. Opener Lemonade builds slow, from bird calls to a shimmering guitar line, from the guitar to a regular, driving beat, and then Raphaelle Standell-Preston's voice kicks in. By a third of the way in, she's wailing “Have you fucked all the stray kids yet?” Although her lyrics are odd, she has an incredibly strong voice, it really packs a punch. But at the same time, it reminds me of all those other female vocalists that people don't tend to like so much (your Joanna Newsoms and your Bjorks). Call it a marmite voice. I dig it. The track advances into a hook-laden, summery synth instrumental and then her voice comes back, almost spiralling around the track as she chants “All we want to do is love”; it's easy to get pleasantly entangled in the gorgeous layers in each of these tracks.

Put simply, the sounds in these tracks are beautiful. Plath Heart's intro sounds like someone literally breaking through a wall of sound, Glass Deers is a hazy ethereal soundscape and a perfect compliment to title track Native Speaker, with more downbeat textures and a tangible sense of longing. They even have range: Lammicken has a surprising dubby edge to it, this is sound lost and frantic in a vast landscape. It's a really important track as well, because without it (and its impressive mastery of a darker atmosphere) Braids could be accused of being too samey. Although even that accusation wouldn't be so bad, the first two tracks do showcase a real talent at exuberant, sparkling electro-pop.

Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, this album faces a few problems which rather pull the carpet out from under its own feet. It's not very well sequenced, the two poppiest tracks and the two longest tracks are both nextdoor neighbours, so after the first two you're wondering if its a bit light, and by the fourth it all feels like a bit of a slog. Which is a shame, because the album has all the ingredients of a really great one. Added to this, some of the tracks err on the slight side (Same Mum and Little Hand being the main culprits), and it's not quite long enough to have substanceless tracks.

Braids haven't quite pulled it off with this one, although there's a lot to like. I really can't stress enough how beautiful the soundscapes they've constructed are, the production is wonderful and displays a really sophisticated mastery of sonics and timing. It's worth one listen just for that. But the vocals will certainly be divisive, and most of the tracks feel very slightly off the mark; Glass Deers could be a bit shorter and Same Mum could use some variation. I'd say its worth a listen, and whether it strikes a chord is probably going to be mainly down to individual tastes.


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At 25 May 2011 at 08:37 , Anonymous Envy said...

I really like it a lot, and brilliantly articulated review! I feel like structure shouldn't affect your rating as much as it did, but you make a valid point; I'd give it an 8/10 (the Lady Lazarus reference in Plath Heart is awesome).

At 25 May 2011 at 11:41 , Blogger Tom Faber said...

I know what you mean, but when poor structure affects both the sequencing of the album and the listenability of the tracks I think it does have quite an important role, and therefore does demand perhaps a higher importance. Thanks for reading :)

At 2 June 2011 at 02:40 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

correction: it's "have you fucked all those dragon's yet?"


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