To celebrate the release of No Coast we will be running a different piece on emo greats Braid every day this week. For Day One: Our review of No Coast.
by Chad Jewett
No Coast, the long-awaited fourth full-length from Champaign-Urbana emo innovators Braid, feels instantly familiar. The album’s twelve songs and forty minutes are uncannily warm and comfortable, like a place you swear you’ve been before. Perhaps this is because No Coast, the band’s finest album and somehow an improvement on the exceptional Frame & Canvas, feels like the album Braid always should have made, the next step that we all simply had to wait fifteen years for the quartet to take. For a band that’s always had some interest in finding the universal wedged in the specific, this feels wonderfully apt – the album’s measured gentleness arrives as a new dimension for a third act. No Coast is almost wholly defined by earnest, sun-faded major keys and early-summer mid tempos, and considering that Braid was once so eager to tangle itself up in anxious curlicues, the quartet is now, for the first time, expansive and willing to breathe, finding a second life in the outdoors where previous albums were all frustrated in binding interiors.
No Coast is characterized by a sense of fresh air new to a band that, on 1998’s seminal Frame & Canvas for instance, was more interested in the tight spaces of page-filling emo word problems. One could once be reminded of claustrophobia in the cascading anxieties of songs like “First Day Back” or “Collect From Clark Kent”; No Coast instead brings to mind a night out in the back yard. Few post-hardcore bands were as dense as Braid once was – now precious few are this buoyant. This is a band that seems to be newly invigorated by finding transcendence in open spaces. Indeed, this is the best way to think about the breezy opening notes of “Bang,” an elliptical descending riff that expands into a Technicolor burst like an opened window, expanding to fit Bob Nanna’s increasingly affecting, elastic low tenor. “Bang” sways in a gently insistent current, bright and finely crafted. So many of the song’s ups and downs feel like they’ve been around for years, especially a quiet, springy bridge over which Nanna whispers “Lay low, listen for the outcome / Let go, down for the outcome” (Nanna’s taste for wordplay remains). It’s the kind of ebb that the band would have previously played for a dynamic punch but instead is used here for wistful serenity. One used to look forward to the bursts in Braid songs; No Coast reaches most of its acmes when its at its most pensive.
“East End Hollows” offers a salient example of another new development for Braid: the singing of Chris Broach. Previously geared toward punctuating Nanna (a dynamic that worked wonderfully given the roundness of Nanna’s voice and the sharpness of Broach’s), No Coast finds the guitarist claiming entire songs and frequently offering essential pieces and counterpoints to the tracks he shares. “East End Hollows,” one of the album’s finest songs, finds a wonderful consonance between Broach’s evergreen tenor and the song’s spiky, insistent power pop, its narrative of punk rock memories underlined by its second-wind energy. Broach’s melody is a marvel of descending, wistful economy, the kind of tunefulness that models its own narrative of bittersweet memory, where a “Woah-oh” is perfectly added as punctuation to the tender sadness of “Can you take these dreams and throw them out the window?” It’s a clever song, able to connect nostalgia to sound with wonderful precision. Elsewhere, Broach shapes a compact sing-song to the churning bounce of “Many Enemies,” a spry pop-emo highlight culled from Braid’s 2013 split with Balance and Composure. On the album-closing “This Is Not A Revolution” Broach reaches for the buoyant top of his range atop a four minute span of time-lapse indie rock, his voice working like a strand of highlighting color over a surface of slow-shifting guitars and a minimalist beat (drummer Damon Atkinson, who has always been a startlingly intuitive engine for Braid, is at his empathetic best through No Coast).
If Braid has always been more or less defined by texture and the finer points of post-hardcore construction, then No Coast constitutes a massive achievement in that sense too. Not only is there a compelling spark added to the band’s aesthetic by the ways in which Nanna and Broach’s voices offset and tangle, but the album is almost tangibly lush in its movement from temperate middle ranges to hush ebbs and sonic blooms. Produced by Will Yip, the album is a gorgeously beaming forty minutes, its palettes resolutely pastel and sunbaked and holding the quality of new grass or faded paint. “Pre Evergreen” (perfectly titled, coincidentally, to reflect this wonderful vividness) and “Climber New Entry” are especially salient examples of the album’s fine-grained sonic warmth, Nanna’s round, oaken voice (which, like Broach’s singing, continues to grow, reaching new levels of subtle luminousness and comforting warmth as the singer-songwriter reaches his forties) matched to richly appointed guitars like a living room’s worth of well-kept furniture. “Climber New Entry” maintains some of the careful, friendly balance of Nanna’s previous band, Hey Mercedes, in it’s ability to counterpose waves of guitar with a tone that can only be described as conversational. When No Coast is at its loudest, it is also never less than welcoming, genial. Nanna never has to raise his voice to offer a missive like “I only want to hear your voice tonight,” adding to the quality of effortlessness that defines No Coast.
At times it’s hard to fully render the graceful perfection of this album; it’s difficult to tell whether No Coast is the product of fifteen years of barely contained ideas or the result of four men – staring down middle age – who are now finally willing to just be. Indeed, if there’s a major difference between No Coast and the best moments of Frame & Canvas and even Age of Octeen, it’s that Braid’s previous taste for panic attacks has been replaced by something like zen breathing exercises. Where the band was once gnarled to the shape of anxiety, it is now spacious and peacefully Arcadian. The album’s narratives are still frequently concerned with emotional difficulty and worry and conflict, but you get the sense that Nanna and Broach aren’t nearly as fraught over these tensions as they used to be. Now they’re the gently recurring pangs that also show up in your joints. Perhaps No Coast is the album these four artists were writing in their heads for a decade and a half, but one also gets the sense that much of it came out as a not-unpleasant exhale — especially since that’s what the album most sounds like: pausing to catch your breath.