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Braids - Shadow Offering Music Album Reviews

On their fourth album, the Montreal trio begins a new chapter, one robust enough to hold the intense emotions in frontwoman Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s vocals. 

Braids’ fourth full-length was inspired by a solar eclipse, a phenomena that provides a neat metaphor for frontwoman Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s voice—at once dark and luminescent, fleeting and slightly dangerous. Over the course of their existence, the Montreal trio have evolved from a low-key synth-pop group into a daring orchestral ensemble, and Standell-Preston’s singing has led the way. With each record, the group further excavates the powerful clarity in her broad vocal range, treating it with a lighter touch and greater space.
Aided by producer and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, the band continues to expand their once-restrained electronic palette. On “Upheaval II,” they lean into the funk of the electric guitar, its low register a grounding foil for Standell-Preston’s vocal acrobatics. When songs include swarming synths, they’re for texture, not shape: “Just Let Me” layers them atop a steady foundation of piano before letting them fall to the background as a shimmering guitar arpeggio takes hold. Standell-Preston reserves her falsetto for sudden moments of grandeur, using her clear, full-throated vibrato to lend direction to the band’s more ambient passages. If 2015’s Deep in the Iris was a departure from the lighter fare of their early releases, Shadow Offering is the start of a new chapter, one robust enough to hold the intense emotions in their lyrics.

There’s a fiercely diaristic quality to the songwriting on Shadow Offering, an outpouring of grandiose metaphors rooted in personal experiences. On “Eclipse (Ashley),” Standell-Preston pairs images of the sun’s eclipse with the entirely earthly experience of self-actualization. It’s a relatable contrast, reflecting the human inclination to filter even rare astronomical events through the lens of personal milestones. Many of the songs center on Standell-Preston’s fraught relationship with men, moving from abstracted figurative language about a troubled relationship on “Just Let Me” to the entirely literal expression of anguish on “Fear of Men.” Her honest writing can make even well-trodden topics, which encapsulates most of the record, seem bright and novel. The confidence with which she discusses her poor taste in men on “Young Buck”—“Young buck 22-year-old who treats me badly/ The blaring example of what I am drawn towards/ And should strongly move away from”—would be funny, if the experience of doomed relationships weren’t so resonant.

However, Standell-Preston’s stream-of-consciousness honesty buckles under the weight of larger societal injustices. On the 9-minute epic “Snow Angel,” her enunciation sharpens as she rattles off buzzwords with the outsized confidence of an amateur slam poet: “Fake news and indoctrination/Closed borders and deportations.” She questions her own position in the oppression of others—“Am I only just realizing the injustice that exists/Cloaked in white privilege since the day I was born”—before returning to platitudes about global crises, conjuring images of polar bears on ice floes and young people glued to social media. It’s not that Braids are incapable of canny political commentary—”Miniskirt,” their glorious slow-burner from Deep In The Iris, built its power from explicitly calling out rape culture through personal anecdotes. But these shallow, unstructured critiques of hegemonic systems come across as ignorant, and, at worst, narcissistic, like an ayahuasca trip gone horribly wrong. Braids underwent a small reckoning with their own privilege in 2018 after former bandmate Katie Lee accused the band of performative allyship; “Snow Angel” comes across as a tone-deaf response, in which white guilt and self-hatred smother any possibility of genuine engagement.

While it’s hard to argue that Shadow Offering redeems itself from the bizarre ramblings of “Snow Angel,” it can perhaps be cordoned off as a misstep along the pathway to embracing maximalism. The remaining record reflects the band’s continued emphasis on Standell-Preston’s striking vibrato and range, the inclusion of more acoustic instrumentation fitting of the vacillations in her singing. Like U.S. Girls’ Heavy Light, Shadow Offering evokes excess and mania with the hip-swinging rhythms of funk and new wave, packing each inch of the record with small inflections layered for the greatest possible impact. The band’s effusiveness often feels torrential, which makes its more inane moments come off as collateral damage. On Shadow Offering, Braids isn’t afraid to steer dangerously close to the eye of the storm.
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