You're lucky to be alive.
My friend Holly from Illinois was selling a list of CDs recently, and I picked out a couple and mailed her the cash for them. The package came in last week with my two new CDs, Rainer Maria's "Look Now Look Again" and Braid's farewell live album, "Lucky To Be Alive." I've probably only listened to the Rainer Maria CD one time since getting it, but the Braid CD has been in pretty much constant rotation. They just don't make bands like Braid anymore; it seems like almost all of the modern iterations of emo that descended from that original late-90s midwest scene picked up on only some of the elements that made it so great, and in the loss of the other elements managed to dumb down and homogenize a sound that used to be so original and exciting. It's a shame, especially since none of the bands that come along these days can even come close to equaling the records they themselves are taking inspiration from. Even Hey Mercedes, the post-Braid band that contained 3/4 of its members, was guilty of this, leaving behind the rough edges, strange math-rock song structures, and quirky vocal interplay that were some of the best parts of Braid as they'd existed, in favor of making a couple of mainstream-pandering emo albums that were catchy and enjoyable, but in the end nothing to write home about.
"Lucky To Be Alive", on the other hand, stands in firm contrast to said Hey Mercedes albums, and reminds the listener of every reason why we all loved Braid back then, just in case Hey Mercedes might have made you forget. In addition to everything else Braid had over Hey Mercedes, they were far more in touch with their punk roots than their members' later projects, and were known for giving some of their best songs to comps and split EPs, just because those songs were the ones they had available when they were asked. "Lucky To Be Alive", by capturing a particular live show, does even better than the two single-disc volumes of the "Movie Music" compilation at creating a sort of greatest hits package for Braid, pulling from albums, EPs, and comp tracks, and placing all of the best songs together in one place. I personally am sorry that my favorite Braid song ever, "Hugs From Boys", is not here, but once that glaring omission is disregarded, this CD seems perfect, throwing in songs from all eras and albums (well, except that it doesn't contain a single track from Braid's debut double LP, "Frankie Welfare Boy Age 5". It would if it contained "Hugs From Boys," but honestly, the rerecorded version of that song that appeared on the back of the "First Day Back" single is better, and there's pretty much nothing else worth preserving from that album) and running them together in a sequence that is at times breathtaking in the perfection of its juxtapositions. When "Forever Got Shorter" slides into "What A Wonderful Puddle" without the band ever stopping at all, for example.
Braid were one of those rare bands that get better as they go on, and this CD captures one of the best facets of their later career, the excellent vocal interplay between lead guitarist Bob Nanna and rhythm guitarist Chris Broach. When Braid started, both guitarists sang, but generally split things up by song, with Bob singing the vast majority of them and Chris only getting one or two an album. It was on their last album, "Frame and Canvas", that they finally figured out what they could achieve when they got Bob and Chris to both sing on the same songs, having their voices weave around each other and create textures and melodic interplays that were impossible with only one voice. There was still a clearly defined lead singer on most of the songs, and it was still usually Bob, but no one could argue that set opener (well, after a short instrumental intro) "The New Nathan Detroits" would be nearly as powerful if it weren't for the way Chris plunges into his one verse. It's even more powerful here, because of the fact that Bob chooses to let the crowd sing the last line of the first verse of the song, which means that the silent pause before the second verse is entirely Chris's. And he takes it, screaming "And I will talk about this year, as if it were something to talk about" with everything he's got, the band taking a cue from him and slamming into the song, on the first "talk", with twice as much power as they'd played the first verse.
Chris's two big moments from the "Frame and Canvas" album are here, too, back to back. The one-two punch of "Breathe In" into "Milwaukee Sky Rocket" is probably the highlight of this album; the two songs are a couple of the most ferocious rockers in Braid's entire catalog, which may be why they were given to Chris to sing, as he has more of a raw, powerful rock n' roll belt compared to Bob Nanna's more mannered, note-perfect tenor. The best example of this contrast, and the strengths of both vocalists, comes in the transition from verse to chorus on "Milwaukee Sky Rocket". Chris has been screaming the verses, but when they hit the chorus he switches to a background vocal role, screaming "YEAH!" after every line while Bob sweetly sings the main chorus. Obviously, Chris wouldn't have been nearly as capable of hitting those notes as Bob is, but the song wouldn't be nearly as powerful if he'd dropped out entirely. I'd even go so far as to say that the shouts of "Yeah!" make the song.
Some of the tracks brought out for this CD are surprising choices, such as "Age of Octeen" closer "The Chandelier Swing", but if there's one thing that Braid were always capable of demonstrating, it was the fact that even their supposed lesser compositions had melodic hooks to spare, and the unflagging ability to get inside the listener's head, leave you singing along to some chorus you forgot you knew. In fact, this may be my favorite thing about Braid, the thing that draws me back to them in a way that Hey Mercedes never could; they didn't just write pop hooks, they wrote creative pop hooks, the kinds of things that couldn't be duplicated by a lesser band, because while a lesser band might come up with the same chords, they wouldn't think to, say, play them in 7/8 time, or to construct verses around 5 lines instead of 4, or whatever idea they decided to use on that particular song. They had so many ideas, too--in spite of the sheer amount of songs they released over their career, they never did anything that could be even remotely considered repeating themselves.
There was even more to it than that, though--Braid made music that was sincere and real. Listening to "Lucky To Be Alive" over the past week, after not playing any of their records in at least a couple of years, this has been brought home to me in a much more forceful manner than it ever was back when I played their albums every week. Hearing Bob Nanna make an offhand reference to the fact that he was 23 in 1998, the year I turned 22, in "The New Nathan Detroits", I couldn't help but think of the way that Braid had traced my growth during the years of my early 20s, moving with me through the changes and traumas that (contrary to what I expected when I was still in my teens) didn't stop and if anything intensified once I "became an adult". There are moments when I'm listening to this album and I get choked up, when I'm singing along and my voice breaks from emotion. It's not just memories of the time when I listened to these songs constantly, either (though that is some of it), it's the fact that a lot of this stuff still hits close to home, too close for comfort, even now that I'm dangerously close to 30. Hearing them end the last song, "Capricorn", with a stolen Cap'n Jazz line, "You can't look at the sky without looking right through it," reminds me of an old girlfriend who used to sing "Puddle Splashers" (one of the two Cap'n Jazz songs that contained that original line) to me, and then on "You're Lucky To Be Alive," Bob sings "Go make a mess of the mystery, of your perfect love history," and I hear echoes of my own life, right now, in his oblique poetry. Then in that same song's chorus comes the moment where Bob sings "Everyone knows your name, and everyone knows you're the same," Chris chimes in with, "You're lucky to be a--" and hesitates, then Bob sings, "--live" in the pause. In that brief passage, I hear everything that made Braid great, and suddenly I can't take it anymore and tears are running down my face. Oh Braid, you get me every time.