“Deep in the Iris” – Braids

4 stars (out of 5)

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Deep in the IrisFlourish // Perish”, Braids’ 2013 ghoulish and appropriately-titled album was relentlessly electronic and micro-managed into various cerebral parts which led to several songs with a playing time of around seven minutes. Less than two years later and the Canadian female-led band, now a trio, has returned with a collection of songs that is far more human and approachable with a new, over-riding pop sensibility. Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s cut-glass voice still sounds pained and introspective in places but the accompanying sonics are tighter and more focused, brighter and with poise. They have opened up an air-tight studio and, with some trepidation, wandered outside.

Letting Go” and “Taste” open the band’s third album and both introduce bold, simple piano chords early on that dominate the entirety of “Deep in the Iris”. The prominent acoustic instrument on the album, Standell-Preston’s vocal, is high in the mix and is also accompanied by the more expected electronic soundscapes that crash and spin elegantly around her. ‘The hardest part is letting go’, Standell-Preston repeats again and again, such is the intention to move on and begin again. On the mid-nineties electro-pop of “Taste” (listen to northern band Dubstar’s 1995 debut album ”Disgraceful”, and you can start joining the dots) the admission of ‘so I left you, but you’re actually what I like’ partly identifies the cause of this crisis.

New beginnings are referred to again on what is the most, somewhat ironically, pointedly attention-seeking song on the album, “Miniskirt”. An anthem, regardless of its intention, that reinforces the right of any woman to wear what she chooses without fear of male violence. Standell-Preston sings in a way that suggests intense personal distress and history but with the recognition that this is a depressingly age-old reaction that still lingers over women, whenever or whatever their experience. ‘It’s not like I’m feeling much different from a woman my age years ago…I’m the slut, I’m the bitch, I’m the whore, the one you hate’ over churning keyboards and beats that wind down temporarily to a quiet, piano-only sliver before Standell-Preston reasserts her self-nominated position of power and dignity.

Sore Eyes” is both the most surprising and fully-realised track on “Deep in the Iris”. The album’s highlight, it surrenders completely to what’s been hinted at throughout and is a relentless, synth-pop stomper that demonstrates just how far the collective writing ability of the band has come. Built around a gloriously melodic, fantastically plain-speaking chorus about internet porn obsessions and the grubbiness experienced following hours of screen fixation, ‘Watched some porn and surfed until my eyes got sore again, and now I’m feeling gross and choked like everything I don’t want to be a part of. The girls with balloons and the men with batons, shoving it hard, two people being porn stars’

From “Miniskirt” to the album closer “Warm like Summer”, with its euphoric, ever-escalating middle-eight meshed between drum and bass and ever-soothing piano, the band are on a skilfully orchestrated home run. “Getting Tired” has an assured but downtrodden attitude that could be early Liz Phair with pop-art aspirations and “Bunny Rose“, with its fizzing electro glitches and naggingly catchy chorus of ‘what’s so bad with being alone? I don’t want to aimlessly throw my love around like it’s nothing’, is both rare and thoughtful in its sentiment. With “Deep in the Iris” Braids have made an album that is smart and immediate with messages and observations that are uncommon in what is essentially a brilliantly written indie-pop record; it’s one of the best around at the moment.