Disputed zone

Braids, Purity Ring and the media barriers of fringe music exposure

As is the natural order, Alberta's arts community appears to be experiencing a bit of a rise in international recognition. Trevor Anderson and Fish Griwkowsky, the intrepid duo behind "The High Level Bridge," the controversial short documentary about our city's relationship to the link between downtown and New Strathcona, are currently in Utah showing the film at Sundance (and hanging out with Susan Sarandon). In the music realm, our province has registered early 2011 victories with a glowing New York Times review for Native Speaker, the debut album for Montréal-by-way-of-Calgary prog pop darlings Braids and Gobble Gobble offshoot Purity Ring's "Ungirthed" registering Best New Track on Pitchfork.

"Ungirthed", a collaboration between current GG member Corin Roddick and ex-member Megan James, is stunning. Recalling the electronic flourishes and lilting Bjork-like vocals of Braids singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston's side project Blue Hawaii, James fits perfectly between off-kilter samples, drum programming and various pitched vocal utterances. The song initially gained credence from a mention by a website called Weekly Tape Deck. This site is attached to Pitchfork's blog aggregator Altered Zones. They are an example of outwardly laudatory praise that, in a deeper way, represents something restrictive.

The modus operandi for the creation of Altered Zones appears to have been two-pronged: a way for Pitchfork to assimilate and depersonalize its biggest competition in breaking new music (the blogosphere) and the development of an area to shift the surplus of bands and songs that have a certain sensibility or production value. For most bands, making it onto Altered Zones may be the highest ceiling of their exposure. Without label backing, branding or a PR company, it is unclear how acts are expected to make the jump to the next level. This, to me, is the biggest achievement of "Ungirthed": that it got through on quality alone and in such a short time after coming into fruition.
That said, the community buzz only started in earnest once the song was deemed worthy of Best New Track designation, prime real estate on the hallowed Pitchfork main page.

Then there is Braids, a band that skipped the aggregator to earn more mainstream exposure but which fraternizes with many of the bands considered by a mysterious blog-governing body to be slightly out of range of the primary site, such as Gobble Gobble and Teen Daze.

Although it had been in production for the past few years and features mostly formative material, Native Speaker still stands out as a winning record. The Braids formula of spindly intersecting guitar figures and thoughtful instrumentation, along with the soaring lead vocals and obtuse, idiosyncratic lyrics of Standell-Preston, frequently achieves an ethereal quality. The group's highly collaborative live show is even more seamless. Braids earned a 7.9 on Pitchfork. After album release shows in Montréal and Quebec City, the band has already sold out of its initial vinyl stock.

The band's success can be linked back to Calgary to some extent, but largely seems to be a phenomenon that can't be merely connected to a specific environment. Just as people do not often associate Bob Dylan with being on the forefront of the Duluth, MN scene in the early '60s, some bands are just of themselves and appeal to people in a more spectral way than being grounded to somewhere in the physical world. Braids might get so big one day that the group will be seen as just a band from somewhere in North America.

The thing to take into perspective about these instances of success and notoriety is that there are more achievements beyond this level to be had. Higher standards present a challenge to the community to make better music and think bigger. Hopefully Braids and Purity Ring can represent what's possible when hailing from the Albertan environment and not just the high watermark for online exposure. V

Roland Pemberton is a musician and writer, as well as Edmonton's Poet Laureate. His music column appears in Vue Weekly on the last Thursday of each month. 

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