Braids - Shadow Offering review featured image

Album Review: Braids – Shadow Offering (2020)

Braids is a Canadian electronic/art-rock trio, consisting of Raphaelle-Standell Preston, Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith. Catching our attention with ‘Amends’ (from their second album, “Flourish/Perish”), the band simply stood out with their reverb-heavy production style which placed it somewhere between the deeper, more soulful sound of Hundred Waters and the experimentation of Young Magic. With unpredictable song structures and heavy use of polyphony, Braids went on to release singles like “In Kind”, “Miniskirt” and “Blondie”, and their 2015 album “Deep in The Iris” was a critical success.

Far from the partly-shoegaze adventures of their debut album “Native Speaker”, “Shadow Offering” is a continuation of the style which the band perfected with “Deep In The Iris”, especially their “Miniskirt” single – overlapping melodies, slam-poetry-like delivery combined with heavy use of repetition, and more maximalist production rather than the more understated affairs of “Flourish/Perish”. Standell-Preston’s voice is, without any exaggeration, one of the best in indie music, with a flawless technique and a rich, shapeshifting, operatic tone that can go from blissful to thundering and back in an instant. Having a background in theatre, Standell-Preston admits to being influenced by Grimes, Karen O and Animal Collective, and that she approached singing like she did acting, by trying to imitate multiple voices. The fuzzy, at times eerie, but always deeply melodic textures always complement her singing, and by no means is Braids a band that rests solely on their lead singer to create stunning, hypnotic soundscapes.

Braids band members

Their first album in five years, “Shadow Offering” was produced by Chris Walla, an ex-member of Death Cab For Cutie, who also produced Tegan and Sara’s 2007 “The Con”. Walla was a great choice for an indie-rock band that transitioned halfway into minimalist-electronic territory, and he is definitely a great choice for Braids, a band that relies on maximalist compositions and electronic instrumentations without losing that raw, ambitious, abrasive indie-rock essence.

“Here 4 U” is a crescendo of an intro, starting with a delicate pad and a lead synth that serve as balance for the longing vocals. Piano chords join in as Standell-Preston changes her phrasing (going from a more equally-accented, spaced-out syllables to a faster, freestyle delivery is one of her signature moves), and when the piano and lead synth become one, halfway through the track, the vocals deliver the home-run over a gleaming instrumental outro.

“Young Buck”, one of the band’s best singles ever, seems to be about choosing the wrong romantic partners (or perhaps just one-night stands) and ending up in toxic relationships, repeating the same cycle over and over again, all because of a mix of lust, shallowness, numbness and a never-ending supply of hope. The single and accompanying video are truly theatrical in every sense of the word, with the verse “It’s seeming so hard/ To ever be loved by you” paving the way for the sonic bliss of the chorus. The vocals just echo “Be loved by you” over and over, as an arpeggiated synth conveys the ups and downs of such an attachment style, described in the second half on the song as “pointless, pointless, pointless“. Standell-Preston makes “Young Buck” very personal, and this isn’t the first time the band has touched upon youthful lust either.

“Eclipse/Ashley” seems to almost lean in on a cosmic horror of sorts, as Standell-Preston sings about being eclipsed, and recalls herself at age 27, figuring out that the universe doesn’t have a plan for her and feeling depressed as a result. The song is dedicated to her best friend Ashley and might have been created after of the band witnessed a solar eclipse. Preston plays guitar “in a serious way” on the song, and going by the Bandcamp release, this is the first time she’s done so since “Native Speaker”.

“Just Let Me” will probably please Massive Attack fans, with its deep bass, soulful guitar riffs, melancholic piano and trip-hop-style snares. The outro sees a powerful drum kick join in, as Preston just asks “Where did our love go?“, ultimately proving that the band isn’t afraid of tackling new territory.

“Upheaval II”, another song about cruel love and self-discovery, is a more indie-rock affair, with pronounced snares and electric bass taking listeners to a more familiar ground. An short, airy interlude provides a breather just about halfway through the album, only for the whole band to kick in and deliver an outro that seemingly uses the counterpoint technique (the whole band is, at times, like a true orchestra in “Shadow Offering”).

Repeating musical motifs from “Young Buck”, “Fear of Men” goes in a more Bjork-like direction at first, and coming after three very strong offerings, is the one track that doesn’t fully manage to impress – too much of it just sounds like everything we’ve heard before. Its role in the overall flow of the album is essential, however, because “Snow Angel”, the song that comes after it, just happens to be the most ambitious, demanding and unhinged piece of music Braids have ever released, the true core of the album.

“Snow Angel” is, if not a true protest song, a song about questioning one’s white privilege. Call it a triptych if you will, because its first act, more about feeling depressed and conflicting emotions, doesn’t announce the craziness of its second one, prefaced by a repetition which fades into Standell-Preston going into full slam-poetry mode: singing about the chaos of today’s world, the social injustices and her own role in perpetuating them, and then going on about the melting ice caps, consumerism, personal accountability, motherhood and Mother Earth. The vocals move from a more assured style to a less controlled murmur, which then becomes a wailing, which then turns to outright screaming. Preston is seemingly recording her breakdown live, and it is simply the most powerful thing Braids have ever done – Pitchfork called it cheap, shallow, even narcissistic, but the words “stab her and watch her, stab her and watch her” seem to us like the band being the most aware and visceral it’s ever been. Act three of the song uses another “classic trip-hop”-sounding riff to deliver the band’s most chilling lyrics: “Can I get off of this ride/ I’m feeling dizzy/ It’s moving away too fast/ And I wanna come down“. At the point of listening, this made “Snow Angel” seem like a goodbye-song, one in which the band, and its singer recognize their powerlessness and their past mistakes, and an apology of sorts.

An apology for what, you might think? When recording the “Flourish/Perish” album, the band actually had an extra member, Katie Lee, who was seemingly relieved of her duties halfway through the recording process. The band cited creative differences, but what went on afterwards is described in a accusatory voice by Lee in her 2019 CBC interview, in which she calls out the band for gaslighting her regarding her equal member status, for their “performative allyship” in their stance on sexism and rape culture, and even for racism. The band has since issued an apology, and have promised to attend an anti-oppression workshop – “Snow Angel” seems like that apology taken further, and while Braids’s behind-the-scenes behavior casts a dark shadow on a listener’s enjoyment of the track, it is the most honest and direct it’s ever been, and their self-criticism (which borders on self-flagellation), while not open in any way, is at least a form of criticism… which also sort of rejects any further criticism, coming simply as a full-stop.

[EDIT: In 2019, the band members each talked about their reconciliation with Katie Lee in a Line Of Best Fit article, describing it as an act of healing.]

Why the album continues after “Snow Angel” at all might be a headscratcher at first, but “Ocean” manages to have a soothing effect, with Standell-Preston’s angelic vocals declaring unending love and immersing the listener into a melancholic realm, one focused on living through an experience and simply cherishing it.

“Note For Self” is a coda that is the anti-“Snow Angel” in every way but one – the instrumentation – with the lyrics being about growing up, being content with the good, small things in the world and just approaching life as “one foot after another“. Together, “Snow Angel” and “Note” create an effect similar to hearing Bobby Gaylor’s famous “Suicide”, a depressing listen at first which ends up as a pro-living anthem: “There is no reason/ Just breath/ And a beating of the heart“.

Overall, “Shadow Offering” is a great mix of electronica and rock, can even be called trip-hop at times, and finds the band unraveling and then piecing itself back again. A heavy album, alternating subtlety with truly hammering in certain viewpoints, but ultimately about freeing oneself from unhealthy patterns, seeing the beauty in everyday living, and building better structures brick after brick. With “Shadow Offering”, often repeating certain motifs and structures, the band seem to be great builders. It remains to be seen whether in the near future, they’ll return to being great architects.

“I was on track to pursuing a dance career and a jerk high school guy tripped me and cracked my knee cap. I spent six weeks in a cast, and during this time, a red guitar showed up at my house that was a present for my mother from my uncle. I was told by my mom that this guitar was not for her, but for me and that my Uncle Timmy didn’t know exactly how to give presents. Apparently, my Grandmother Jean, while on her death bed (may she rest in peace), told my Uncle Timmy that if he didn’t look out for me, she would haunt him. This was his way of looking out for me. My Uncle Timmy has since passed, and I miss him with all my heart. He is the reason why I started writing songs. If the red guitar that was said to have been for my mother hadn’t shown up, I don’t think I would be on this path, and I am grateful.” – Raphaelle Standell-Preston

Rating: 4 out of 5.

(4 out of 5 stars)

Featured image is “Solar Eclipse” by Margaret Pepper.

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