It’s getting difficult to determine which is Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s side project: the psychedelic pop band Braids, or the dreamy, synth-pop duo Blue Hawaii. Both are developing into major contributors in the burgeoning Montreal music scene and between the two bands, Preston’s output over the past three years is almost prodigious. But where she once had two disparate projects, she now has two very similar bands evolving in the same direction. That’s why it’s easier to appreciate Flourish//Perish, the newly released EP from Braids, in the context of Blue Hawaii’s 2013 release Untogether.
2011’s Braid EP, Native Speaker, found Preston channeling her inner Animal Collective as she performed her best Avey Tare impression across songs such as “Lemonade” and “Plath Heart.” While it was sometimes exhilarating, and her lyrics much more brash than anything from Blue Hawaii, in the end it was impossible to not say “Animal Collective rip-off” after every song because they too readily wore their influences on their sleeves. But Flourish//Perish demonstrates Braids has become a very different band. Preston has traded in her mimicking howls, for a more subdued vocal approach that actually lends itself to a more complicated, and rewarding sound. The overt sexual imagery that sometimes suffocated Native Speaker has been replaced with sparser, more glacial lyrics that hover over the minimalist rhythms and synths. Also gone is any semblance of the guitars that riddle Native Speaker and this is where an knowledge of Preston’s work with Blue Hawaii helps in understanding Flourish//Perish. In 2010, Preston and collaborator Agor released the 8-song EP Blooming Summer, an electronic album that shared a likeness to other Canadian artists such as Grimes and Purity Ring, to critical acclaim. Following the success of Native Speaker in 2011, Blue Hawaii took a back seat as Braids began to tour heavily. It wasn’t until 2013 that Blue Hawaii resurfaced with the sublime and haunting Untogether which turned aside from the more maximalist sounds of Native Speaker and even Blooming Summer in favor of a blend of layers and looped vocals that slowly crescendo with intricate harmonies. Now a little over 6 months later Preston returns with Flourish//Perish, a continuation of her migration into expansive, minimalist landscapes that she really explored with Untogether.
There is nothing here as catchy as “Lemonade” or lyrically straight forward as “Plath Heart,” but catchy and straight forward are things of the past with Braids. Instead, Flourish//Perish relies upon compelling grooves like “December” or the pitter-patter synths of “Fruend” to propel the songs. Space is what this album is all about. Where Native Speaker was so tight as to be claustrophobic, Flourish//Perish is sparse and spacious: a cold dead emptiness, and it feels both lonely and comforting, and when you feel like it can’t get any more isolated, you get a song like “Hossak” with the simple refrain, “Oh Jordan/ Where’d you go to/ Where’d you go to this time” gently sung over a muffled piano.
Flourish//Perish is more than just a huge jump in maturity from Native Speaker it really is an example of an artist coming into her own as a singer and a songwriter. No longer standing on the shoulders of Animal Collective, Preston is able to showcase her own developing, prodigious catalog.