The fact that the members of Montreal’s Braids are as old as I am makes me question what I’ve done with my life up to this point. Barely old enough to drink in the United States, the Montreal via Calgary quartet have arrived fully formed on their debut, Native Speaker, by taking the dream-pop template and implementing force, heavy experimentation and a front woman with an outlook well beyond her years. Couple that with her unbelievable vocal abilities and you have an early candidate for one of the top debut albums of 2011, which is if you’re willing to give it a chance. Native Speaker is a slow burn of an album in much the same as Warpaint’s The Fool, requiring multiple listens and an open mind to even begin to “get it.” However, the rewards far outweigh the initial investment, and for that Braids are worth commending.
Braids’ leading lady, Raphaelle Standell-Preston, first gained notoriety as the vocal half of Blue Hawaii. The duo’s gorgeous Blooming Summer EP introduced most of the music world to her stunning voice, an instrument that is used to a just as astonishing effect on Native Speaker. This is evident straight from the start, as opening track “Lemonade” demonstrates her ability to go from a delicate echo to a powerful cry almost effortlessly. In most instances, she sounds almost otherworldly, yet in other places she is able to bellow out in unhinged fashion, such as on the astonishing “Glass Deers.” Lyrically, Standell-Preston continues the almost overwhelming heartbreak and sexual frustrations found on Blooming Summer. Lines such as “We’re all just sleeping around…All we really want to do is love” are delivered with such force and passion, her almost catastrophic outlook on love and sex is given even more emotional force as a result. Her performances on Native Speaker amply solidifies her as one of the most powerful voices to emerge from the scene since Amber Coffman joined Dirty Projectors.
The music that backs Standell-Preston is just as intriguing as her voice. While there are plenty of synth lines, bubbling aquatic sounds, and layered guitar work to forgive one for labeling Braids as dream-pop, the band one ups this notion by giving many of the songs a strong percussive force rather than overtly relying on drum machines and subdued beats. Additionally, the group is not afraid to veer off in multiple musical directions during a song, usually with each member exploring the intricacies of their instruments in the process. Songs will slowly build, erupt, and cave in on themselves, yet it is all done with careful consideration and precision that makes every note sound intentional. The closest thing to instrumental hooks on the album comes courtesy of “Plath Heart” and “Same Mum,” and even those eventually get consumed through the course of the tracks. Each listen will undoubtedly reveal something new to the listener sonically, making the album worth coming back to. It also allows the album’s 45 minute runtime to seemingly pass by unnoticed, something that few experimental bands are capable of achieving.
While the album may disappoint those looking for immediacy or sing along choruses, Native Speaker will reveal itself to patient listeners over time for what it is: a dense, emotionally charged, and stunning album that shows a band that is in full control of their sound. It is one of those rare albums that you don’t have to fully understand in order to enjoy it, and that in itself is more than enough to proclaim it as one of the strongest first statements by a band in the last couple of years. No matter what direction Braids decide to take next, Native Speaker should hold it’s own for years to come.