Four years ago, toward the end of a brutal, sunless Portland winter, I took a flyer on seeing a Montreal buzz band called Braids who I had heard about but not given a proper listen. The gorgeous, lush, cut-and-paste electronic soundscapes the young Canadians concocted on the Holocene’s back stage that night could have woken the sun from its slumber, I told a friend after the show. On Deep in the Iris, the dream-pop trio’s third album, and second on Arbutus Records, it’s frontwoman Raphaelle Standell-Preston who wakes from her slumber – a slumber relative to how she views herself, her standing in relationships and her place in a world often harsh and vulgar toward women.

Standell-Preston’s awakening could not have happened at a better time for her or the band. From the outside, Braids seemed to have hit a wall after receiving blogosphere heat in 2011 with its debut album, Native Speaker. Sophomore album Flourish // Perish failed to create the type of excitement its predecessor ignited, the band acknowledged difficulty translating that album’s computer-created songs into a live setting and Standell-Preston devoted plenty of time to her side project, Blue Hawaii. The enormous potential Braids exhibited when I first witnessed them seemed in danger of slipping beyond their grasp.

Those concerns were allayed earlier this year when the band released Deep in the Iris singles “Miniskirt” and “Taste,” arguably two of the finest songs on any album this year. The pieces that surround those exquisite pillars explore love, sex and relationships through Standell-Preston’s vocal dynamics, at turns delicate and strong. Across the album’s nine tracks, drummer Austin Tufts and multi-instrumentalist Taylor Smith team to create lean, driving electronic movements that mirror and highlight Standell-Preston’s words and voice – which are, in tandem, the star here.

To hear Standell-Preston phrase the language of love and lust on songs like “Taste” and “Sore Eyes” is to hear a European commentator describe a football match for the first time when all you’ve heard is Americans talk about soccer. The game is familiar, yet the takeaway is fresh. Standell-Preston injects common relationship tropes with vivid colors that twist and tangle and confound in all of the curiosity, nerves and excitement that her subject matter demands. It’s quite startling.

On the glistening, ethereal pop song “Taste,” she transitions from asking for her lover’s comfort and guidance in verse one to the realization in verse two that what she really wants is rough sex. “Take me by the throat and will you push me up against the wall/ Spit all your hurt on me, so I can feel my reach,” Standell-Preston seductively demands as Tufts keeps the song’s pace brisk. The singer’s inference is if you cannot meet my emotional needs then at least meet my physical ones. It’s the kind of frank sex talk that has hallmarked Braids’ music since Standell-Preston observed, “What I found is we, we’re all just sleeping around” on “Lemonade” off their debut.

Deep in the Iris is an exercise in Standell-Preston determining her self-worth, both internally and in the eyes of the world at-large. This starts on hypnotic opening track “Letting Go,” on which the carefree lovemaking that once sparked a relationship has flamed out and all that remains is the reality that she must cut ties. “The hardest part is letting go,” Standell-Preston repeats toward song’s end until finding release with a series of long, soaring exaltations. Her quest continues on “Miniskirt,” an invigorating synth-driven dissection of the hypocrisy of gender and sexual mores and the damage men cause women and children when they treat women as disposable commodities. On “Getting Tired” a heartbroken and lonely Standell-Preston turns inward reminding herself to “laugh a little” during the unforgiving winter. Penultimate track “Bunny Rose” finds the singer deciding she should get a dog rather than another boyfriend.

By album’s end, a light has turned on in Standell-Preston’s head. She doesn’t need her ex occupying the other side of the bed, she concludes on album finale “Warm like Summer.” Gone is the woman who conceded earlier in the album, “I guess I thought I didn’t need much from this world”, to explain away why she settled in love. In her place is a woman who, like the band she fronts, is now ready to reach her full potential.

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