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Braids: Shadow Offering
by George Graham
(Blue Note Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/29/2020)
There’s an interesting thread of contemporary music that has been called “art pop.” There was the art rock going back to the 1960s with big elaborate arrangements and quasi-classical influence. Art pop can bring together more melodic elements with influence from the sophisticated compositions and arrangements of the progressive rockers, but without the heaviness. This week, we have an excellent new art pop album from a Canadian group called Braids. It’s their fourth release titled Shadow Offering.
The beginning of the band Braids goes back to when the original members played together in school in Calgary and essentially started the band while in high school. The front-woman has always been Raphaelle Standell-Preston, through the different iterations of the group, which they originally called The Neighbourhood Council. The band recorded their first EP in 2008, at which time they moved to Montreal. They released full albums in 2011, 2012 and 2015. In the meantime, they toured extensively, and their 2012 release, Native Speaker was nominated for a Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy.
The new album features the same trio who appeared on their last release, Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith, with all being multi-instrumentalists. Although Ms. Standell-Preston has cited the electronic band Aphex Twin as one of her influences, the new Braids album is reminiscent of the music of Kate Bush, Tori Amos, or another very creative art-pop artist Becca Stevens. The musical setting features synthesizers prominent in the arrangements, but it’s not really what most people think of as dance-oriented electronic pop, mainly because Ms. Standell-Preston is more a storyteller in her vocals and especially her lyrics. She is quoted as saying that her struggles with depression have influenced her lyrics. But most on this album tend to be about unrequited love, but have a generally hopeful outlook. The arrangements can be rather sophisticated with uncommon time signatures, and some of the pieces have distinct sections, art rock style. The group is self-contained on the album and they often manage to get an orchestral-like sound with their multiple keyboards. Ms. Standell-Preston has an appealing voice with a wide range.
Opening is a piece rather typical of the sound of the album, Here 4 U one of those seemingly unrequited love songs, that combines a kind of contemporary sound with an interesting arrangement. Ms. Standell-Preston shows her vocal flexibility on the track. <<>>
Also leaning on the electronic sonic pallet is the following track Young Buck, another song about a seemingly asymmetrical relationship. <<>>
More contemplative in mood but more orchestral in texture is a piece called Eclipse (Ashley). On the rhythmically tricky tune. Ms. Standell-Preston can evoke a little Kate Bush in her vocals. <<>>
Also seeming dealing with a problematic relationship in its lyrics is Just Let Me. Again, the track features creative composing with lots of little sonic twists and turns. <<>>
Fear of Men touches on an abusive relationship, in a creative mostly electronic setting. <<>>
Perhaps to show the “art” side of their art-pop direction is the composition called Snow Angel which runs nine minutes and gets into some spoken word lyrics. It becomes a kind of litany of the ills of the world in the present, including climate change, injustice, and the like. <<>>
Perhaps the most contemplative sounding piece on the album is Ocean, another song of trying to restore an apparently damaged relationship. <<>>
The album closes with Note to Self, for me, one of it’s most appealing and interesting, with impressionistic lyrics and an arrangement that combines an atmospheric sound with a kind of a driving beat. <<>>
Shadow Offering, the new fourth album from the Canadian trio Braids, is a first-rate example of the concept of “art-pop” with creative, sophisticated arrangements in the context of an appealingly melodic sound, centered on Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s excellent vocals, that rise to the demands of the music and yet remain warm. The keyboard- and synthesizer-dominated sound defies the stereotype of contemporary electronic pop. It’s not oriented around dance beats, and the band members take full advantage of the sonic textures that the electronic instruments can provide. It’s also lyrically intelligent and sometimes uncommonly direct for this kind of music.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A-minus.” Ms. Standell-Preston’s vocals are well recorded and mostly unfettered by studio effects, and when they are used, they can be effective. The overall sound is also quite warm and organic for such an electronic project.
If you are a fan of artists like Kate Bush, Tori Amos or Becca Stevens, Braids’ new album Shadow Offering is a welcome addition to the art-pop fold.
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