Azure Ray are back after a seven year hiatus. Not to say that Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink were quiet during that time. On the contrary they released six albums and a couple of EPs between the two of them, including the O + S record back in 2009 which i really enjoyed. However, as is often the case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is to say, in general i have not enjoyed the various Azure Ray solo recordings as much as i enjoy their recordings together.
Which means that it is a good thing that Azure Ray are recording together again. And this is a lovely album, a delicate balance of vocal harmonies, quiet guitar, keys and synths, and subtle rhythms. The seven years apart have not caused Azure Ray to be reborn as some act with a lot of anger to work out against their instruments, and that is fine. Azure Ray make music for the quieter moments.
As someone who often listens to angry music, i also really enjoy Azure Ray and similar acts in the dreampop genre. They are, i think, two opposite sides of the same coin. Angsty music rails against the pointlessness and stupidity of life, while dreampop just ignores it in favor of imagination. If the world really sucks as bad as all of those metal and punk bands claim in their screaming, why not just ignore it? To me, that is the dreampop stance: escapism as opposed to rage.
I put on Drawing Down the Moon to get away from the tedium of the everyday world and enter the softly lighted world of Azure Ray. It is a world of gentle breezes and clear skies, of light movement in no real direction, just a sort of pleasant ambling. It is a calm world, far from the frenetic and seemingly (ultimately?) pointless activity of day-to-day life.
There are a lot of really lovely moments here. The record has the perfect start, a minute and a half tune called Wake Up, Sleepyhead. A harp trills before Taylor and Fink sing in harmony. It is a lovely intro that fades immediately into the synth bass driven Don't Leave My Mind. This song is largely tinkling keys and vocals, with subtle rhythm and that wobbling bass, which is really a perfect accompaniment to the voices. I really like this song, which showcases Azure Ray at their best. The synth bass continues with Into the Fog which is a little more frantic of a song, really driven along by that bass throb.
Azure Ray mix it up a bit with Larraine, which is a country song of picked guitar and vocal harmonies singing about some kind of sexual misconduct that i don't really want to know about. On and On Again is faint reverbed guitar and some keyboards under clear voices. Then the picked guitar returns on Make Your Heart, where it is paired with an insistent kick drum beat and lush vocal harmonies. On this song, Azure Ray are as close to Shellyan Orphan as they have ever been.
Silver Sorrow pairs light guitar with some echoing electronic sounds that form an odd percussion under the harmonies. This is really pretty, and perhaps the closest to O+S that this record reaches. The bands country influence returns on Signs in the Leaves, another guitar tune, where the voices are hushed and breathy like Margo Timmins during The Trinity Sessions.
Love and Permanence takes their sound in a different direction, more like something off of the first Heather Duby record, or something by Dot Allison. I am thinking more trip-hop here, less honky tonk, more smoky British bars than country dives. The drum beats here are flat, perhaps from a machine, and the guitar is tremoloed so much it is a wobbling drone. Shouldn't Have Loved is another country guitar song, with the addition of a nice drum line and a little keyboard trill. This is a playful song.
Dancing Ghosts features piano and echoed guitar. The song grows slowly to a lovely climax of vocal harmonies and guitar that recalls Robin Guthrie's work in Violet Indiana. This song is utterly lovely.
And finally, everything wraps up with the sparse Walking in Circles, mostly just guitar and voices, until it hits the chorus where a playful horn line wanders in, seemingly distracted from a Dream Academy tune. It is a delicate end to the record.
I continue to be impressed with Azure Ray. Taylor and Fink continue to show amazing diversity, merging country folk and electronic elements into one musical sound that is all their own. I just hope that i don't have to wait seven more years for another album. Then again, if it takes that long for them to do something else this nice, i can wait.