The Last Picture Show

Braid's reel life story

Braid
Movie Music Vol. One and Vol. Two
(Polyvinyl Record Co.)

Lucky to Be Alive
(Glue Factory Records)

It's nothing unusual for a band to release singles collections and live albums posthumously; hell, most bands release such compilations a third of the way through their careers. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois', Braid has three records out this month: two discs (Movie Music Vol. Oneand Two) compiling every single, remix and unreleased track not found on their three albums; and a live LP culled from the final four shows of their career (Lucky to Be Alive). If this sounds perhaps a touch, um, ambitious for a band that was together for six years and was just beginning to realize its potential on its last album (1998's exceptional Frame and Canvas), you're not mistaken.

Braid was a good band, and it may have gone on to be a great band. The group's thick, melodic "post-hardcore" (I do believe that's the PC way to say "emo" these days) was sensitive without losing the infectious brightness of pop music in the band's later years. But their journey to that point had as many valleys as peaks, and that's what's represented on each of the Movie Music discs. Both are arranged chronologically (one with the 7-inch songs and the new track, "Lucky to Be Alive," and one with compilation tracks and cover songs), so unless you're a diehard, the first half of each disc is generally as forgettable as the bulk of the fresh-faced, earnest emo bands flourishing right now.

Not that the recorded history is without value in some circles. The Movie Music records are a virtual Strunk and White's Elements of Style for emo. The early singles suffer from the same misguided efforts that plague the genre's current legions. Too serious, too lyrically eager and vocally dissonant, so distinctly within all of emo's parameters that it seems standardized. There are exceptions -- the softly self-effusive "I'm Afraid of Everything" and the playfully childish and naive "What a Wonderful Puddle" stand out, and both are included on Lucky to Be Alive as well.

Disparaging commentary about the shortcomings of emo aside, each record has brilliant moments. The melancholic and sweetly sincere "Forever Got Shorter," recorded for Tree Records' Post Marked Stamps 7-inch series with a theme of long-distance loves, shimmers with sensitive-boy intensity, and the new track "Lucky to Be Alive" leaves no question that Braid threw in the towel while at the top of its game. The included covers, which range from a couple Smiths tunes to the Pixies' "Trompe le Monde" to a triad of classic pop songs -- Burt Bacharach's "Always Something There to Remind Me," Billy Joel's "My Life" and the Foundations' "Baby, Now That I've Found You" -- give the second Movie Music volume a blithe whimsy that many of the band's peers lack (not, of course, Promise Ring, which has built its career around such adolescent sentiments). The pinnacle of all three records, a track called "Roses in the Car" on the second Movie Music, can be credited to another band's member, though; the Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison's serrated remix of the previously impressive "A Dozen Roses" throws electronic drums and a swirl of pulsating hums around the vocal track. Kids, emo-tronica is now a reality.

Lucky to Be Alive succeeds in capturing Braid in its optimum form. The band always had a live chemistry that sent waves of electricity through audiences. The energy level and complexity of the group's instrumentation is stunning, though after nearly 600 shows in six years, it's not surprising. The live record also garners its material primarily from the recent portion of the band's catalogue. Three of the band's last four singles (all post-Frame and Canvas) are included, as is the spectacular "A Dozen Roses."

So you're probably not going to go out and spend $39 on all three albums unless you're fanatical or a relative of the band (and you people already have these). For a capsule of Braid's songwriting ingenuity and unbridled spunk, Lucky to Be Alive is the one to own. Hemingway once said that you should only remember women as they were on the best day they ever had; the same can be said of bands, and Lucky to Be Alive is as bright as Braid ever was.

 
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