It’s fitting that the first noise on Native Speaker, the beguiling, bewitching debut album from Montreal’s Braids, is a crackling, dripping haze. This is a band that is all about abstraction, experimentation and, most important, obfuscation. There’s no easy throughway into understanding Braids, no hit single bound for iPod commercials, no sing-along lyrics, and no songs with easily digestible narrative arcs. But Native Speaker is this young year’s early champion, an engrossing album that bears the very real possibility that you won’t “get it” even after a dozen listens. This one’s a grower, ladies and gentlemen.
Reared in Calgary as a band called Neighborhood Council, Braids moved to Montreal and quickly gained a reputation for their live shows, which are liquid, sprawling affairs, with the whole set essentially being one long soundscape broken up with songs. Native Speaker bears that same liquidity, with each song slowly building into the next through ambient passages. The surprise for people aware of Braids through their well-received sets at CMJ will be most surprised at the fact that they can rein it in for the (relatively) concise songs here.
Braids have drawn comparisons to Animal Collective, which is to be expected anytime a band employs prog-rock length (Native Speaker is seven songs and 45 minutes long) and a healthy amount of reverb. But Braids are drawing from a wide pool of influences, from the Cocteau Twins (the vocal harmonies on “Plath Heart,” “Same Mum” and “Lammicken”) and krautrock (the relentless plinking of the keys on “Plath Heart”), to late-period Portishead (“Native Speaker”). But all of it is filtered through Braids’ unique angle of approach.
But what sets Braids apart is the dueling vocals of Katie Lee and Raphaelle Standell-Preston, who both bury their feelings in lyrical abstraction. You always know they’re singing about something, but what that is isn’t always clear. “Lemonade” might be about a boorish boyfriend and just sleeping around, but it also might be about a hallucination; there are references to men without taste, fucking dragons, and black diamond eyes. “Plath Heart,” meanwhile, references the pressures of being expected to have children, crossed with fighting back against expectations. “Lammicken” is a drone-heavy shouter about stopping everything, while “Glass Deers” contemplates a lover moving on, or at least it probably does. So what does this add up to? Who knows. But trying to parse out what is actually being said, or not said here, is almost as thrilling a deconstruction as the winding eight-minute tracks in the middle of the album.
What’s most astonishing is the fact that Native Speaker is self-produced, and that it’s so self-assured. This is, after all, a band of 21-year-olds from Calgary who moved to Montreal, found a sound, and got signed to indie powerhouse Kanine before even putting out anything beyond a leaked single (“Lemonade”). If there’s ever been an advertisement for allowing bands to develop before they blow up, Native Speaker is it. You’ll probably listen to more immediate albums this year, but few will have the down-the-rabbit-hole quality that marks Native Speaker for success.