ALBUM REVIEW: Braids soar on ‘Shadow Offering’

“YOU want me to love myself, more than I love anyone else / I tire of myself sometimes, just like I tire of you … do I need you, do I want you, do I hate you … I’m here for you, even if you don’t want me to be”.

So offers Raphaelle Standell-Preston during “Here 4 U”, the opener on Shadow Offering, the fourth long player from Montreal’s Braids, over a mournful piano motif, before massive church organ swells and beats surge and a heavy velvet drape of shoegaze guitar falls. You know you’re in for a deep and occasionally emotionally fraught journey into the often dichotomous human experience.

Raphaelle Standell-Preston, Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith, the three members of Braids, met as students in Calgary and are now based in Montreal. They carved an early reputation as travellers out in the more interesting and rarified borders of torchsong, art-rock, electronica and shoegaze with tracks such as 2011’s “Plath Heart”. Albums Native Speaker, Flourish//Perish and Deep In the Iris cemented a cult reputation among the sonic cognoscenti during the first part of the decade. 

Taking a little time and space, Braids hunkered down and spent the better part of three years crafting Shadow Offering. Taking over a spacious studio in an old warehouse, the band were able to rediscover themselves. “We wanted to give ourselves time to achieve a higher calibre of artistry,” Austin Tufts says. The resulting nine-track release has been whittled down from the 40 songs they wrote during this period.

A chance encounter with a fellow studio resident led to Chris Walla, of Death Cab For Cutie, stepping behind the mixing desk.

Shadow Offering is a more personal offering, lyrically, dealing a little less with abstractions than previously. But the lush sonic textures that typify their work are still present. 

Second track “Young Buck” talks of a 22-year-old “ … who treats me badly” – an ode to impossible love, over layered sequencer chatter. It’s as close as Braids come to straight 21st-century pop. 

“Eclipse (Ashley)”, a paean to Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s best friend, swells with a sea of piano, over which her voice soars like a gull. It reminds me of nothing less than the Cocteau Twins-Harold Budd collaboration, The Moon and the Melodies, filtered through a 21st century sonic sensibility. Yes, that’s fine praise.

“Fear Of Men” is another track wherein shoegazey guitar drift and a peppering of electronica give a solid grounding for some flights of ecstatic vocal abandon, the like of you last heard on Blue Bell Knoll or from Julianna Barwick.

The deep, magnetic core of the album is “Snow Angel”. What begins as a sparse and propulsive modern-indie rock tune, with one foot in the tech-songstress camp of Kelly Lee Owens, and another in the raincoated, drizzly space of classic-era Bunnymen,  it breaks to spoken word over a building motorik riff: “Amongst all the madness, the chaos / The need to march in the streets / Fake news and indoctrination / Closed borders and deportation”. She falls into the everything, the complexity of living now. The guitars squall for a brief few bars, before the song drops out to a more dreampop refrain: “Can I get off of this ride / I’m feeling dizzy.”

Despite the dark confessional tone of the lyrics, Raphaelle contests that “there’s more hopefulness in this record than anything else I’ve written. I think the songs are more human, more tangible, more honest,” 

“I showed up for my heart on this record. I really showed up. From the start to the finish.”

And let’s look again at the sheer sonics of this record. This will sound lush on vinyl through top-end speakers. There are so many reference points that Braids touch upon besides those allusions mentioned above: some of the Nordic introspection of Suzannah and the Magic Orchestra (but then, we are dealing in the same latitudes, hemispherically); that monochromatic steel of later Massive Attack; they really are one of the most interesting bands to be exploring sound north of the 49th parallel.

Shadow Offering will be released this Friday, July 19th, on Secret City Records:

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