For one thing, the line between margin and mainstream has been collapsing for at least a decade now, and arguably since grunge broke in the early ‘90s and “alternative” became another word for “cash cow.” It’s been a long time since pop was a safe space carefully guarded by recording company and radio executives to ensure nothing unusual or edgy leaked through; weirdness is a marketable brand now. For another thing, the ongoing sea changes in the ways that music is made, marketed, and delivered to listeners – the shift to the digital, the rise of the Internet, the death of major record companies and the glory days of Kickstarter, to name a few – effectively mean that when it comes to making and selling music, almost everybody’s “experimenting” now, in one way or another. Hell, Madonna is releasing music videos through Snapchat. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are all regularly exposed to so much music, of so many different varieties, that the average music fan’s palette has become accustomed to a range of styles and timbers way beyond the gentle, safe sounds that used to rule the airwaves.
When all of pop music has become a giant stylistic, economic, and logistical experiment, what exactly is “experimental pop”? This was the question I found myself repeatedly asking while listening to Deep In the Iris, the third album from Braids, a Montreal-based Canadian band (currently a trio) whose music is described as experimental pop if not by the band themselves, at least by their record company’s promotional material. After repeated listening and careful contemplation, the best answer I can come up with is that “experimental pop” is a synonym for “frequently pleasant but wildly uneven.”
Deep In the Iris is not a bad album. The production is excellent; the record is well-recorded, well-mixed, and well-mastered, with a clear, balanced sound that gives the vocals, the synths, and the drums equal sonic space. Braids are a tight, technically competent band. Vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston has a graceful, flexible voice with a solid register that swings between crystalline clarity and angsty grunts. The best moments on the album are genuinely terrific. The rapturous, swooping chorus of “Taste,” for example; when Standell-Preston sings “Ooooh, this feels so right!” you believe it and envy the pleasure. Or the echoing, swirling verses of “Sore Eyes,” especially the last one, where she repeats the word “cigarette” over and over under a pulsing synth until the word ceases to signify meaning and becomes a vocal talisman. My favorite song on the album is the sensual, smoky “Letting Go,” with its hypnotic beats and multitracked vocals that rise to a wordless, impassioned wail by the end of the song.
That said, for a band that declares their music to be experimental pop, Braids wear their influences a little too blatantly. The most enjoyable parts of the album are often also the ones that are most directly reminiscent of other artists. As a rule, I find listing what other bands this new band sounds like to be a lazy form of music criticism, but it’s hard not to see Gang Gang Dance-lite in the slurred, reverb-heavy mini-freakout that closes “Happy When.” The ethereal, wait-are-those-real-words vocals on “Blondie” are directly inherited from the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. And 16 years after the genuinely revolutionary break at the end of the Roots’ “You Got Me,” drum’n’bass just isn’t that bold of an innovation in pop music; it’s everywhere on Deep In the Iris, and it weighs the album down.
The album’s biggest weakness, ultimately, is not a lack of talent but a lack of coherence. This is true not just across the album but within individual songs; “Miniskirt,” for example, starts as a keyboard-backed semi-ballad before breaking out into a percussion-driven rush two minutes in. At 7 or 10 minutes, even a mildly interesting band can manage to construct an effective multi-sectional track, but it takes a genuine gift to graft two entirely different dynamics together in the space of a 3-4-minute pop song without sounding like, well, two entirely different dynamics grafted together. Braids are a solid band, but they’re not quite there yet. This uncertain ambition plagues the vocals, too; Standell-Preston deploys an arsenal of vocal tics and quirks, but there’s an undercurrent of forced profundity to the lyrics that makes it clear she’s invested in conveying a Very Important Insight; as a result, wordless swoops and swirls alternate with frankly excruciating lyrics about “people being porn stars” and coffee-cup wisdom like “We experience the love we feel that we deserve.” Ultimately, Deep In the Iris just wants to be too many things all at once. Braids can’t decide if they want to craft catchy 4-minute pop songs with beautifully buoyant melodies or elaborately brainy sectional compositions, and as a result they’re stuck in the middle, but in a way that grasps incompletely at both options without melding them in a genuinely interesting way. A decisive step in either of the two directions would make Braids’ next album that much stronger.