BRAIDS Deep In The Iris

[Flemish Eye; 2015]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: chill/third wave
Others: Blue Hawaii, Animal Collective, Björk

Pain is disarming; power is insidious (personally, politically, critically).

Deep In The Iris, the third album from Montreal-via-Calgary’s BRAIDS, draws from a reservoir of pain and the power that keeps it: Raphael Standell-Preston’s lyrics here are plainspokenly autobiographical, her two narrative focuses a devastating breakup and a seemingly abusive relationship with her step-family. There is no misdirecting, little poetry to be wielded. It is an album about separation, bodily precarity, and how the attachments we desire least can bind us tightest.

It is also an extraordinarily BRAIDS album, which is one way to admit my sentimental fascination with its sounds is rooted in what might seem anachronistic to TMT’s less “indie rock” readers. (Is that you? Maybe you’ll like it anyway: it is a strong, focused concept album.)

On “Sore Eyes,” Standell-Preston sings about the revulsion/attraction of losing herself to the abysmal make-believe intimacy of porn. The complicated complicity she feels with the male gaze that frames her pleasure is represented in a Lynchian nightmare of ordinary despair. Just when she’s trying to escape the entangling screen glow of her laptop, she goes out to find “there’s an old man who works behind the counter” whose very presence embodies the power Standell-Preston has committed herself against. The line creeps from deep in the mix as an eerily pregnant countermelody carrying the misplaced guilt, the unearned shame of watching porn through that same gaze that she otherwise recognizes as exploitative, even death-bringing (or what else does it mean in the coda, her droned repetition of “cigarette,” the same single cigarette sold to her by the triggering hands of that old man behind the counter?). As her overdubbed harmonies ooze in, Standell-Preston acknowledges the reflexive slut-shaming impulses of contemporary rape culture, the terror of that structure, and the pleasure she abjectly plies within it.

It’s these moments of piercing affective — and political — precision that offset the clunky, underdeveloped, overcooked, or restrained music and words elsewhere on Deep In The Iris. That same track includes imagery like “the girls with balloons and the men with batons” and single “Taste” uses cliché, “And we can’t explain why/ We hurt the ones we love/ Most of all.” But I have a high tolerance for occasionally corny Canadian lyrics delivered with heartrending force, being raised by a dad who played a lot of Neil Young and Alanis Morissette.

Lead single “Miniskirt,” though one of the album’s highlights, strikes at the occasionally heavy-handed awkwardness that could maybe feel didactic (musically and lyrically) compared to the subtly building, but no less riveting, highs of Native Speaker. Or maybe it’s just disarming to hear songs confront personal trauma and structural power in the same breath — what else would make these lyrics more uncomfortable than the “universal” frankness of Benji or Carrie & Lowell? And so I breach what feels more than a little mansplanatory, to critique how Standell-Preston deploys her feminism. How can I say her presentation of binaristic gendered expectations isn’t subtle or subversive enough, when it’s chilling/radical how she spits “cuz I asked for it” with acid in her voice? She sings, “I’m not a man hater/ I enjoy them like cake,” invoking the controlling image of a man-eater, enabling herself to have them and eat them too, with a knowing grin. The song’s collapse of confessional storytelling and broader structural critique make it a third-wave anthem, a pop piano ballad that’s accessible and direct. She addresses the double standard that casts women as “slut” versus men as “womanizer, casanova, lethario.” If the vocabulary is outdated, its resonances aren’t — this is the same system that latched on to Standell-Preston’s sexuality on Native Speaker (“As a girl who was talking about sex, I was just ragged on immediately”). The song’s better half, carried by synth brass that’s dense, toxic, and liquid, begins bluntly, “I know what it’s like to have everything taken away from me.” It’s a painful story, with poignant details like a retreat to a women’s shelter for nine months, that breathes life into the song’s first half, just as the heavy, claustrophobic synths enliven the stoic music elsewhere.

The songs here for the most part hover around four minutes, which gives the album an accessible pop allure, but it also robs them of the breathing room they’ve used (needed?) in the past to create their most enveloping sounds — here, they space out only at the end of “Taste” and “Bunny Rose” to familiar, but welcome effect. As a band that always wore their influences proudly (Animal Collective, Radiohead, Björk), BRAIDS have come to a familiar and precise, if then boring, aesthetic. The instrumentation is closely aligned with the metallic synths and skittering percussion of Flouish//Perish, recorded with a warmth reminiscent of Native Speaker, which you can also hear in the live instruments (the first chord struck on Deep In The Iris is from a grand piano). Still, the indulgences of the debut have been filed away into a predominantly verse-chorus grid, which might exemplify the stifling structures being sung about, but results in samey songs. The album’s clockwork songwriting and playing puts the brunt of the ecstatic work on Standell-Preston’s words and voice, which carried me through to the end.

By the time power-ballad closer “Warm Like Summer” coos “You’re always in my heart,” it’s clear that Deep In The Iris is recasting romanticized pop with the specter of Standell-Preston’s lost love and the hand of dominant misogynistic culture. The entwined threads of personal narrative keep her pain alive in the album’s political critique, drawing us deep into the eye she cast at herself and the circumstances she reforms herself within. Although the music doesn’t always conjure it, there’s power in the album’s consciousness.

Links: BRAIDS - Flemish Eye

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