Better Than: Huffing Ether while reading old Facebook messages.
Braids straight up tricked us. In 2010, when the Canadian cloud-rock quartet properly debuted in America, they were the toast of CMJ, playing at least one notable show at Cakeshop, another mellifluous set at Bowery Ballroom, and a handful of others that, if not beguiling, displayed they could deliver swirling, technically adept, layered art rock that disoriented with sky-high synth and harmony as much as it pummeled with melodic, thudding percussion–expectations were raised, and promptly met, following the US release of 2011’s Native Speaker, to be another band fusing the dripping howls of Animal Collective and the tooled songwriting of Grizzly Bear. Yet bucking those expectations became their forte, if not immediately by twists of their own established formula, than certainly with the release of this year’s electronic-focused, glitch-heavy, and moody Flourish // Perish LP. Braids dosed our drinks for a rock show to keep us lit for the after party.
So seeing Braids (now, fittingly to the name, a trio) last night at Brooklyn’s Glasslands for the first time since those 2010 shows was an expectation of a letdown, a burnout of sorts. They juked so hard and somewhat unexpectedly–even considering the In Kind/Amends EP from this year–that the spectacular live show could have suffered at the hands of establishing their own identity. This was simply not the case.
Opener Headaches, the solo project of Landon Spears, appeared on stage wearing a Converge shirt and with two laptops; the name was apt. But he dove into somewhat compelling glitch-house speckled with hip-hop blasts and Latin polyrhythms for a sustained 40-minute set. It started out energetic and tried to stay there. Some of the crowd obliged. But, without a breath, it felt too insistent to open for what was to come. The constant four-on-the-floor bass pattern steamrolled us. This actually was the after party opening for the main event. Not that it was bad in any sense of the word–it was just better suited for a Mister Sunday than a downplayed Monday.
Braids took the stage with charming, almost embarrassing humility. Surely they must know how technically adept they are. Opener “Amends” immediately displayed the chops this band has tightened in the five years since forming: Taylor Smith playing various synth and bass loops through an electric mallet instrument on one hand while tooling with filters on the other; Austin Tufts replicating the beats so precisely on samplers and a gorgeous, natural-finish kit; and Raphaelle Standell-Preston, the central strand of Braids, flexing her voice in enchanting ways, all the while manipulating her own vocals. There’s hardly anything for the viewer to interact with. There’s much more for the listener to take in.
This is tricky, mesmerizing music that’s built around dexterity and intuition. Even if the trio is dialed to an in-ear click track–that kind of makes the spiraling synths, vocal delays, bitcrushers, and percussive polyrhythms all the more impressive, considering they’re calculated to the blip. It’s kind of timeless music in the sense the rhythms coming off the drums, the vocals, and synth bounce off one another in a way Billy Pilgrim wouldn’t be disoriented with–it’s hard to tell just where we are in space and it’s even harder to care about how or why. Hearing and watching it come together live is like figuring out how to use a Spirograph for the first time, even on more straight-ahead cuts like “Hossak” and set-closer “Together.”
The trio debuted three new songs, “9,” “10,” and “13.” And finally, the promise of their early work congealed around the innovation of their later: a melding of electronic beats with the acoustic set and more abandon on the vocals, looking back to Flouirsh… closer “In Kind.” And it was that song–the only wherein Standell-Preston took up her guitar, calling it her baby, saying she missed it–that received the loudest ovation. Her coos, her howls, her arpeggios were unspeakably mesmerizing.
For a group that trades so often in subtlety, they’ve certainly not been afraid to take things to their maximums. But this is smart. Swinging into all quadrants leaves them with a grip of options. Right now, Braids have gone taut into a fascinating and technically relentless outsider pop trio. So pulling out three slightly disparate songs so soon after the release of a moderately received LP just wasn’t a risk. It felt so comfortable the unfamiliar was more hypnotic than disorienting, showing Braids are becoming a critically responsive band.
Critical Bias: I will argue with you forever about Josh Baruth being the best drummer of the last 15 years, and Austin Tufts plays like him sometimes.
Random Notebook Dump: “A tattoo on his thigh that looks like Jiminy Cricket’s shoe, but seems to be dangling testicles or something IDK.”