by Chris Matei
When Braids’ debut Native Speaker was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize in 2011, jack-ofmany-trades musical/journalistic personality Vish Khanna introduced the album to the assembled gala crowd. In a moment of levity, Khanna called Native Speaker “… a sophisticated batch of songs that reminds me why I so enjoy having sex with white people… a record full of teasing and tension, full of mystery and exotic intrigue… emotional outbursts and unexpected, but not premature, climaxes.”
The blend of cheeky, pun-laden language and grand, classical praise was an odd one, and in a post-performance interview with Lisa Christiansen of CBC, lead singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston seemed dissatisfied with a wider critical interpretation of their music that trended toward the “overly sexual.” Here, after all, was a band that could take a single phrase the chanted “I can’t stop it…” – that frames “Lammicken” - and twist it into shapes that ranged from euphoric to seductive to icy to downright terrifying over the course of four minutes. A band with an innocent-looking, technically brilliant front-woman who could render the lyric “I fucked up” with a glassy-smooth, sighing beauty, wrapped up in mutating soundscapes that evoked fantasy and gauzy obfuscation, tantalizing darkness and warmth as well as many a well meaning but patronizing think piece on women and the female image in indie music. It is for conquering this interpretation and simultaneously moving head and shoulders beyond their earlier works that I believe Deep in the Iris, Braids’ latest, should be awarded this year’s Polaris prize.
Elementally, Braids circa 2015 are not the band they once were. They have shed personnel: original keyboardist Katie Lee departed the band amid considerable tension during the conceptualization and recording stages of 2013’s much more electronically driven sophomore effort Flourish // Perish. In addition to downsizing, the band has completed a slow metamorphosis of sound and personality that has taken them from distant desert locales in Arizona to rural hideaways in upstate New York, and across countless personally and professionally gruelling tour bus miles around the world. The result is Deep in the Iris: a record that returns Braids to their roots in creating an uniquely textured, roomfilling and decidedly organic musical dynamism. It is also a break from their previously inscrutable artistic tendencies, choosing instead to make bold and profound thematic statements about fundamental elements of the human experience: family, companionship, longing, identity, love, depression, loneliness, betrayal, and, yes, sex.
Much of this change has to do with Standell-Preston stepping forward from behind the shrouds of electronic pads, delays and filtered reverb that cloaked her voice so mysteriously on Braids’ previous records to sing not only at the front of the mix, but with her chosen words thrown into focus for all to hear and understand. Achingly personal lyrical details add shining facets to the larger themes of each song: nowhere is this achieved with more incandescent brilliance than on “Miniskirt.” Has any musician of the past year, Canadian or otherwise, been so bold in challenging the hateful, red-pillswallowing bashtag culture of objectification and misogyny spreading like wildfire across the unregulated confines of the internet, affecting everyone from artists to journalists to mothers to daughters, as to proclaim “there’s a name for this kind of man, a soft one at that: womanizer, Casanova, Lothario”? And just in case you were wondering whether you should write a think piece about her sexuality, Raphaelle Standell-Preston has an answer: “it’s mine, all mine.”
In addition to “Miniskirt,” “Blondie” paints a poignant picture of familial tension. “Bunny Rose” and “Happy When” ask us if it’s OK to simply be ourselves, as strange as that might be, and find peace in our little rooms instead of seeking out the next partner, the next high, the next text message buzz, the next tour. “Sore Eyes” explores the disconnect between intimacy and the zoned out mechanized humping we watch on internet porn channels. “Taste”, “Warm Like Summer” and “Letting Go” linger bittersweetly on the barely tangible remembrances of something lost, but acknowledge that the self is made better for having had that thing in the end.
Deep in the Iris is very much a sociocultural document: one that turns its sharp, wide lens on the increasingly conflict-ridden, fast-moving, digitally saturated environment from which Braids consciously removed themselves in order to create this music. It’s no wonder that the album feels like such a move away from the abstraction-heavy beatscapes of Flourish // Perish: where that album seemed defined by the wintry tension between growth and death, Deep in the Iris blooms unabashedly and fearlessly, lush and warm like summer.