It’s a fact of life — time makes changes. Things mellow with age. Which is not always a bad thing, as in the case of a fine wine or scotch. But in the realm of music, longtime fans of an act often feel cheated when there’s a change in tone or a change in tune along the way. And yet, it’s the natural progression of things. And perhaps it is so with local faves Braid.
But first, a confession — I was late to the party with Braid. I started hosting a local music show in Champaign in 1999, which was right about the tail end of their run. It was a shame, too, that I never got to see them live. I must have played tracks from the band dozens of times on the air, but never got to interact with the band or check out a show. Such is the story of events and moments in many people’s lives, and certainly mine a day late and a dollar short, as the expression goes. Nonetheless, I had no qualms about opening up the CD case and playing tracks from Braid any time I could.
The band’s local following was well-won — they offered a local flavor on a musical movement at just the right time. Not quite grunge, not quite punk; just the right blend of sound and fury and fun to maintain the energy and excitement that people were looking for. And, in many respects, their reunion couldn’t be timed more perfectly, falling squarely in the middle of a ’90s nostalgia that is reaching a peak: a recently completed Soundgarden reunion tour, Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary shows and the release of their Cameron Crowe-directed documentary, the coming release of the 20th anniversary edition of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (due out this month), dozens of Braid’s fellow rockers from the era reuniting or rerecording or rereleasing — the list goes on and on.
And that’s not all. In the last couple of years, we have seen copious articles and web posts devoted to everything from long-lost beverage flavors and candies to semi-forgotten one hit wonders of the era (and everyone’s favorite form of collective internet snark, “The 10 Worst Songs of the ’90s“).
As with anything, times change. And there’s plenty of change from the ’90s till now to be upset about. Gas is no longer $0.92/gallon, groceries, housing (although much of it clearance-priced now), etc. — all more expensive than they were. Change is the way of things, of life. And of artists.
If Picasso had gone through a phase in his midlife that involved an unwavering devotion to painting nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the result would’ve been a split -— approximately half of the people would have howled to the moon about his nervous breakdown and loss of style or substance, and half the people would have gone on at length about his bold, genre-shattering new direction.
For musicians, especially in this day and age, that split is manifested ten-fold. A simple variation in hairstyle, cover art, or the selection of a different producer is enough to send some of the former fan base into fits, clamoring on about the demise of a once great group/artist. I suspect this to be the case with Braid’s reunion release, “Closer to Closed.”
Stepping back for a moment, though, I would suspect that most of Braid’s hardcore fans from the ’93-’99 era are no longer wearing flannel or combat boots or wallet chains or multiple ear piercings. Change happens because of us, true, but also it happens to us. And a little perspective goes a long way in evaluating where an artist has gone, or what they’ve tried, or how they’ve arrived where they have.
I won’t argue that some musical re-directions end up crashing and burning. I’m thinking of such flubs as Metallica’s “St. Anger” (still one of the most atrocious multi-million dollar recordings committed to binary coding at 128kbps) and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Adore” (because I don’t believe you can have a true Pumpkins album without Jimmy Chamberlain on drums).
With Braid, it’s not so. “Closer to Closed” might not offer up the thrashy noise rock that fans ate up in the mid-to-late ’90s. But that doesn’t mean the band can’t still come together to craft something tonally satisfying.
The first thing that hits you about the initial track, “The Right Time,” is the pop sensibility of the melody. That’s not to say that the band didn’t show hints of pop sensibilities in their earlier work, but it’s much more clearly and fully expressed in this track. Given a few seconds of listening, though, the opening verse offers up just a hint of their previous rhythmic variations. Go ahead — fire it up and see if you don’t recognize just the glimmer of a younger, more aggressive Braid in those opening stanzas.
One difference of note is that the band doesn’t have anything left to prove — no subconscious feeling of inadequacy or angst to expel via their respective instruments. This is a group having fun.
Track #2, “Do Over,” offers the perspective of a youthful, romantic angst that’s ten years on — mature, in most respects, and perched at a point in life and relationships and responsibilities where most of us are torn between looking forward, looking back, and wishing for a chance to start again.
Side B (yes, I’m listening to the vinyl version, because I’m like that) offers up a pair of tracks that further demonstrate a band that’s gone on for a while and come back together for a good time, bringing just a bit of life’s baggage along for the ride. “You Are the Reason” begins with lyrics that place the blame for any myriad of life situations on the mythical “other,” while the second verse takes ownership; “I am the reason…” instead of “You are the reason…” – a simple way of stating a complicated phase that most people traverse in their lives, blaming others for a time, embracing bitterness or thrusting life’s failings on a scapegoat before accepting one’s role in it all.
“Universe or Worse” is the final track, one that throws a lot of early-midlife questions at the listener before providing an ample instrumental and fadeout time for each of us to ponder our respective responses. It invokes a sort of mature struggle, a valid series of questions amid a life too ordinary:
Who’s depending on you to make it matter?
Who’s wishing on you to seem sadder?
So who’s all night adore are you fighting for?…
It’s only natural to grow and change and move beyond what came before, and these lyrics close out the album by posing the questions we ask ourselves, whether we admit it or not. “Who’s depending on you to make it matter?” – Your job, your family, your significant other; It’s a self-evaluation, an inventory of responsibilities. “Who’s wishing on you to seem sadder?” is the friend who hasn’t changed, the one who’d prefer you were down in the muck with them, if only to not feel so alone for a while. “So who’s all night adore are you fighting for?” – Of reminiscing on opportunities missed and relationships foregone or forgotten.
“Could it be the Universe or Worse,” the closing line of the verse sums up the pressures we put ourselves under, or that we allow ourselves to succumb to. Realistic or otherwise, the sensation that so many people bend under, the subconscious belief or desire to believe that so much rests upon our making the right call, and the knowledge that so much of life has no regard for our choices whatsoever.
Four simple tracks that let their fans know that they’re not the only ones touching on these awkward milestones on the road to maturity. And four tracks that let listeners know it’s okay to look back through rose colored glasses while looking forward and having a good time.
I’d be remiss, if I neglected to mention that the new album coincides with the 15th anniversary of Polyvinyl Records (Braid’s longtime label) and their reunion show at The Highdive on September 24th as part of Pygmalion 2011. The outdoor stage will feature a whole slew of Polyvinyl artists, culminating in Braid taking the stage at or around 10:30 p.m. I have no doubt that a lot of old favorites will be played, and fans will be pleased. But bear in mind that while you were aging and maturing and changing, so were the members of the band. No worse for the wear, I think, but no longer angsty 20-somethings either. And you can probably leave the wallet chain at home. Parachute pants optional.
More information about Pygmalion can be found here. To get your hands on the latest album from Braid, or to replace their earlier albums you might have lost, head over to Polyvinyl Records page for the band.