We get into the main hall just in time to catch Londoners Nautica open with a short, mellow set. The room is far from full with most patrons opting to hide out in the back although we spot Braids singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston getting her groove on near the stage. It’s good stuff, a sort of laid-back, folky soft rock with modern beats clocking away in the background. The guitarist’s wavy strums regularly careen near the verge of Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game”. My friend says he thinks the band sounds like a wobbly old cassette tape. I’m fairly sure this is a compliment. When the main act take the stage the hall has thankfully began to fill up.
Braids are a Canadian trio from Montreal, where the soil is rich with bands and off-kilter pop groups. Theirs is a multifaceted sound; DIY electronica, shiny 90’s dream pop, early Björk and folk in a lustrous jumble. In August they dropped Flourish // Perish, their first album after the departure of keyboardist Keri Lee. The new tracks, which feel sparser and less lively than those on the first record, home in on singular patterns; building musical and rhythmical ideas in layers instead of sections. The flowing guitars of celebrated debut Native Speaker have been replaced with synthesized bell sounds; tonally pure like lightly tapped wine glasses. What I really dug about it was the mixture of warm, almost pastoral melodies and cold electronics.
Braids live set-up is light, reflecting the sleekness of the latest record; after a false start the band launches into a well-rounded, slow-burning show. The pulsing “Amends” is not as arresting live as it is on record but that’s probably more a case of volume limitations than anything else. The song is a nice slice of dark pop minimalism; Standell-Preston digitally manipulating her vocals so that they bounce in time with the dominating compressed bass drum. “Hossak” is subtly creepy and dim around the edges like a slightly unsettling dream.
When seeing their live show, it becomes evident that the trio are a far cry away from their laptop-toting peers, who often seem satisfied with singing on top of Mac-derived backing tracks, occasionally adding texture by dragging a finger down a pad. This is not the case with Braids. Most, if not all sounds are played – not synced – and even the intrinsic, digital beats are played live with jaw-dropping precision by jazz-literate Austin Tufts.
Although they’ve been going at it for three months and sometimes seem to hold back a bit in road-worn circumspection the band occasionally come together with sparkling intensity. Towards the end of the set the band relaxes into an ambient jam, drummer Tufts and Standell-Preston start singing wordlessly, their voices painted in thick reverb. After drifting back and forth this interlude seamlessly slips into the last number of the night; the haunting “In Kind”. Standell-Preston’s vocals play beautifully with the plain synth staccato, both flowing with the same mysterious, driving energy. As she sings, she’s accompanied by funky jazz percussion, high in the mix, interplaying and counterpointing the other elements of the song. The track climaxes with Standell-Preston chanting the same line over and over. Her delivery becomes more agitated and screamy with each circling of the part, echoing around the room to wonderful effect. Braids use of repeated vocal passages is sometimes blues-like, unveiling the pure, traditional musical heart that beats behind the electrical veneer.
After a few parting words the band leave the stage, silently refusing to leave us with something off of their well-received first record. But what they know, and we realize as soon as they house lights come back on, is that although their two albums share many of the same components, ending the night with the dreamy naivety of anything on Native Speaker would be jarring. The new material is just as eccentric as what came before but darker and more disquieting; a fitting soundtrack to the chilly city night outside.