T-Minus Grand Gesture
by Chad Jewett
[Stream Brave Bird’s T-Minus Grand Gesture here.]
T-Minus Grand Gesture is a headphone album — an exceptionally confident half-hour of painterly post-hardcore, in which everything feels in its right place. If it were spread across a canvas, you’d spend your time marveling at the brushstrokes. Built from careful textures, plush major key clouds (the album’s ultra-bright, color-washed cover image is reflective of the hazy pop warmth it contains), and pointillist detail, the short record finds Brave Bird continuing along the precise, surprisingly delicate path laid out by Maybe You, No One Else Worth It, while pushing at that album’s borders with wit, thoughtfulness, and an ever-increasing penchant for melody, stretched as far as it can go. In a sense, Brave Bird are deeply iconoclastic, even if their abrasive qualities (which is to say all the corners of their aesthetic that surprise — a waxing quantity) are generally counter-intuitively embracing. The album plays with the typical pieces that make up contemporary emo, but the band’s defamiliarizations also tend to be the things that make Brave Bird most compelling, most likable. At seven songs and twenty-one minutes, it’s hard to say what T-Minus even is. Longer than an EP, shorter than most albums, you get the sense that Brave Bird are arriving at a place where the only concerns they have time for are the ones involving the sounds in their heads, which are more and more free range. Everything else is just empty structure. Built from oaken acoustic guitars, electric pianos, time-lapse echoes, studio modernism, and a bookish sense of calm and quiet, it’s also hard to define what those twenty minutes add up to — besides lovely, evocative, and, at times, startlingly affecting mood music.
T-Minus Grand Gesture is also agreeably surprising in its topography, beginning with the gauzy, pastoral trickling of “I Don’t Wanna Know” and “Rekindle” and saving louder, more severe moments for the album’s middle section. As such, T-Minus has the quality of a haze, of early twilight or just waking up. “I Don’t Wanna Know” practically begins mid-sentence, Chris Lieu offering his opening lines (“Pickpocketing words, ‘cause you’re a theif”) with conversational warmth, guitars variably humming half-muted or sparkling in bright arpeggios. Eventually the song gathers speed, Lieu shouting over sharp guitar edges – and yet the whole thing still feels pleasantly mild, as if packed in cotton. During one particularly lovely break a keening guitar emerges from beneath soft white noise like blades of grass through melting snow, a gorgeous, lyrical interlude that exemplifies the kind of careful, painterly craft at work on T-Minus Grand Gesture.
“Rekindle” is similarly soft-focused, similarly pensive, a glacial passage of alt-country-tinted emo (the spry, jangling “Hard Enough” also has some fun blending twinkling Midwestern post-hardcore and jumpy country rock), sparked with laces of echoing guitar and an especially salient chorus, wherein Lieu builds a call-and-response out of clean and fuzzed versions of his voice. Later, the song dips back down into a valley of crystalline Fender Rhodes piano, the kind of short, smoky interlude that pops up over and over on T-Minus Grand Gesture. That weary quality defines the album, and provides its most striking loveliness. Brave Bird have received scores of Brand New comparisons (perhaps mainly due to their quiet-loud swings and Chris Lieu’s flexibly conversational voice); if one were to play along, you’d understand this as their The Devil and God moment, an album deeply defined by atmosphere and expanse. But there is also the careful, pain-staking craft of American Analog Set and Appleseed Cast at work in the album’s use of warm electric piano, finely-wrought guitar, and pastoral moods. Ultimately, the aura of scuffed optimism that pervades T-Minus Grand Gesture is communicated through the ways in which Brave Bird have managed to soften their pop-punk angles, so that the album’s most expressive moments nevertheless feel dazed, cloudy, affably distant. This is emo as dream pop.
Chris Lieu’s voice continues to grow as an instrument. Gathering in elasticity like bent light, some of Lieu’s strongest melodies are the ones that shimmer effortlessly, offering easy hooks in subtle bends and stressed syllables. Case in point: the bridge of the album’s title track, wherein Lieu stretches and riffs on the song’s chorus the way a photographer might play with camera angles, finding different ways of making his imagery at once more abstracted and more direct, carving away at his hooks like sculpted sugar. “Hard Enough” wrings a canny sing-song out of a simple phrase like “Trying not to be alone”; “Open Up Your Mouth” whittles a keening melody out of a deceivingly simple three notes, underlining just how natural T-Minus Grand Gesture sounds, the product of a band that appears to have rock-solid faith in its own ideas, be they as complex and fraught as the autumnal, wavering emo spangles of “TMINUSGRANDGESTURE” or the all-forward-motion sprint of “Hard Enough.” The album is capable of archetypical springy post-hardcore (“Macaroni Time” curls and side-winds like Algernon Cadwallader, guitarists Lieu and Matt Terrigan sparking knotted strands of lights), lo-fi gloom (the album-closing “Killer Velocity”) and spritely pop-punk (the aforementioned “Hard Enough”, for which drummer Mark Buckner’s flexible patterns deserves mention), with little care for how these sounds will cohere, for what ideas communicate “art” and which communicate “adolescence.” Indeed, Brave Bird might offer one of their most salient skills in blurring precisely those lines. Maybe You, No One Else Worth It constantly flirted with melodrama (even bathos), but did so with such cerebral attention to detail that, even if you noticed, you didn’t quite mind. If there’s nothing here as singular as “Ready Or Not,” there is instead an added quality of thoughtful aesthetic care that might end up meaning more. The Ann Arbor quartet seem to be single-handedly salvaging a lot of emo and punk’s most shallow elements by plunging them into new depths.
While I get the sense that part of what has made the youth movement of modern emo engaging has to do with how inert much of wider indie rock has become, indie nevertheless offers possibilities for mood and texture and granularity that define why T-Minus feels special, feels like its carving out some sort of third space. Genre conversations are dull, but listen to this record a few times and try to place it. To my mind, there’s something special in the ways in which T-Minus Grand Gesture gives me pause, the hungry effortlessness that defines Brave Bird’s half-hour race through the last two decades of emo, the last three decades of punk, the last four decades of indie rock. Like Annabel and Dowsing, Brave Bird is offering multiple ways forward for post-hardcore through their increasing attention to atmosphere, ambiance, and space, while simultaneously honing the small moving parts of song-craft. T-Minus Grand Gesture is a singular album, a washed-out twenty minutes of endearingly out-of-focus cloud pop. It is a record that seems to get lost inside itself: an unfailingly inviting hedge maze.