Simon Jay Catling
, March 22nd, 2013 13:09
It's hard to determine what the end result of Canadians BRAIDS' 2011 charm offensive on the UK was, given that they've not really returned to finish the job yet. Whether they were supporting The Antlers or Wild Beasts on tour, playing industry-packed urban crawls or outdoors in the great British wet – not to mention other engagements in Europe and their native North America – they appeared to be everywhere for a time. But they left as quickly as the buzz began to hum, leaving behind only Native Speaker, a mini-album whose quirks were soft-tipped, searching for exit points that they've - as yet - not come back to discover.
One of the most striking aspects of their introduction at-large was the singular vocal of Raphaelle Standell-Preston. Her voice stood out from the instrumental ripples of its surroundings, gracefully arcing this way and that, holding within its spectrum detached placidity, blooded emotion, whimsy. Blue Hawaii is the intimate project of her and partner, Montreal artist Alex 'Agor' Cowan and, as its name would suggest, it isn't fully detached from the sort of woozy paradise that her other group conjured. The couple's only previous release together was 2010's Blooming Summer EP which, technically, was a much more basic take on their mixture of live instrumentation, field sounds and electronic pulses, but fitted similarly with the loosely wandering, journey-like evocations of BRAIDS' material.
On Untogether, though, there are glitches, aberrations among the album's desire to lay languid. There are sections that feel like they've been pulled up from the LP's natural progression and set down elsewhere; sometimes you can almost see the cut and paste of the audio software interface through the aural patchwork, the veil coming down on all this atmospheric magic making. This in part was the duo's intention; as opposed to Blooming Summer – made whilst the pair travelled through Central America together – Untogether was written in the winter in their native Canada. The couple recorded their parts separately, alternating night studio shifts in an effort to explore the effect of creative communication between two people kept apart by time and place. The result is that the album takes on an increasingly icy and dislocated disposition as it goes on: listen to the candle-lit affinity of 'Try To Be,' fingerprints barely marked by the nylon of the track's acoustic guitar as Standell-Preston's voice contents itself in murmur, and compare that with the programmed snags and stutters that gradually creep in, discombobulating and disorientating the vocal flow. It's a ruse that seems successful, the singer sounding isolated and alone on the lost sounding, nostalgia-tinged coda 'The Other Day'.
But, really, the threads joining the two musicians hold fast. That Kompakt are a distributor for this record is telling: the glitchy rhythms assembled by Agor evoke the sort of colour-flushed skies/post-club morning imagery that resides in much of the Cologne techno label's catalogue. There's an awkwardness to the skittering clicks, a manifestation, perhaps, of the self-enforced awkwardness and separation that he and his partner have placed upon themselves in the making of this album – an artificial boundary they've set against the grain of their love. On tracks like 'In Two' and 'Daisy', the webs of burbling synth feel like they've been put up as automated barriers for the vocalist to break down, each track a hurdle, a new environment which must be adapted to.
She does so effortlessly. In spite of the chops, the loops, the pitch shifts, her voice – the record's most overtly human element – is what pulls the pieces together as a cohesive listen. Indeed, the best moments on Untogether are where she's left to sound her most natural and emotive: the aforementioned intimacy of 'Try To Be,' the soaring grace of 'In Two/In Two II.' Relatively untouched and alone, Standell-Preston is allowed to delicately wander across contrasting themes of loneliness and community, trying to make sense of the unidentifiable bonds that keep people together. The question of whether BRAIDS will return or not melts away in this deeply personal insight into Blue Hawaii's emotional and physical connections with one another.