[9 October 2009]
Saddle Creek’s one time reigning queen Jenny Lewis has made a name for herself by transforming herself from indie front woman to ‘70s California country-rock siren over the course of two solo albums. While Lewis is completely competent of selling her roots-heavy outings, Azure Ray member Orenda Fink has carved a similar niche on Lewis’ former label, and done so with equally astonishing results. If Fink’s first solo outing, Invisible Ones, hinted at the musician finding her own ground in a new territory, her newest release, Ask the Night, full-out embraces and expands on a singular, artistic identity.
Fink’s voice is lush, full, seductive, vulnerable, mature, and innocent at various times, and on rare occasions, all of those qualities at once. There’s a hint of a drawl in her ethereal, dreamy voice that elevates a song like opener “Why Is the Night Sad” from sounding flat and idle. Furthermore, Fink never looses herself in the production fabrics of Ask the Night, which is rare considering the mandolins, banjos, and acoustic guitars sometimes make themselves too obvious in their attempt to sound “southern”, as on “That Certain-Something Spring” or the too-blatantly-named “Alabama”.
When the various production tricks come together sincerely with Fink’s voice, the results are phenomenal: “The Garden” rises and swells with Fink commanding the tune with grace, elegance, and most importantly, hope. “Wind” favorably recalls classic Neil Young without sounding like a gimmick, and “Sister” casts a spooky shadow with Fink as a shrinking specter. “The Mural” stands as the most artistically stated track, with Fink sounding like Emmylou Harris leading a 4AD band.
The most amazing quality of songs like “The Garden” and “The Mural” is how unique Fink sounds, despite borrowing so heavily from influences, and that’s what makes Ask the Night so satisfying. Orenda Fink has found a way to take her textural and sonic influences and craft them into something interesting and inspiring.
As lovely as Orenda Fink is when she’s singing melancholically, she just can’t take a real bite into a line. She strays from emotions such as anger and frustration for the most part, and when she tries to sell a line that is the least bit tempered, she reveals her vocal shortcomings. A song like “High Ground” needs some sort of feral energy to fully breathe life into a canyon metaphor, and Fink just isn’t up for that sort of delivery on Ask the Night.
Yet Ask the Night’s biggest weakness remains Fink’s inability to craft an album of coherent narratives. “Half-Light” is gorgeously written, with specific details that give her stories heft, such as the reference to cicadas. Unfortunately, this type of eye for detail doesn’t carry over well onto other tracks. Closer “The Moon Knows” sounds trite and childish—with a couplet like “It’s so sad / To watch the world go bad”, it’s as if Fink was aiming for Patty Griffin’s “Moon Song”, but ended up somewhere between Vanessa Carlton’s first and second album.
Still, there are several times when production, vocals, and lyrics come together serenely and craft something astonishing that suggests Orenda Fink could find her own niche in a world of alt-country/roots rock/neo-folk that become so in vogue as of the past couple of years. Ask the Night isn’t the Southern Gothic masterpiece it has been hyped as, but it is a nice slice of dreamy, fluid countrified folk that works well with Fink’s sensitive voice.