As We Go Up, We Go Down
When you think of Omaha, Nebraska’s Saddle Creek record label, the first thing you might gravitate toward is Bright Eyes. That would be natural, given the heightened status that Conor Obrest had amongst certain emo-tilting youth in his prime. If you had to, thus, define the Saddle Creek sound based on that, you might think folk or you might think country. You wouldn’t be too far off the bat, as Saddle Creek is home to such barroom bawlers as Big Harp. Wikipedia even notes that Saddle Creek has come to define “the Omaha Sound”, with an emphasis on “country twang”. But this, of course, would be a bit inaccurate, as Azure Ray – a dream pop duo comprising of Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor – is out to prove. They call Saddle Creek their home. Fink is married to Todd Fink of the electronica band The Faint, also a Saddle Creek band for a time. On their new EP, As Above So Below, Orenda Fink and Taylor wound up working with Andy LeMaster, who had produced a wide variety of Saddle Creek bands in the past. Orenda Fink, Taylor and LeMaster also all belong to a Saddle Creek band called Now It’s Overheard. Orenda Fink and Taylor have appeared on past Bright Eyes albums. So Azure Ray, in the long run, are as much of a Saddle Creek band as anyone else is on the label, even if their sound may be somewhat divergent from what defines it. Or, pun intended, labels it.
As Above So Below is a bit of a short album of expecting – as opposed to expectations. For one thing, Taylor was eight months pregnant during the time of recording (which may explain why the band decided to record an EP instead of a full-length disc), and the band’s fans (however many of them there are) were kept waiting during a seven-year period of inactivity between 2003’s Hold on Love and 2010’s Drawing Down the Moon. And expecting is a good way of putting As Above So Below because, across the minimalist expanse of its lowly six tracks, you as a listener will keep waiting for something to happen – a hook to materialize, a lyric to stick out and grab hold of you. That’s not to say that the EP isn’t a bad effort, for, as an overall piece, it’s, well, pleasant, I suppose. However, As Above So Below is such a piece of mere wallpaper-ing that it fails “the balcony test”. In other words, if you put this EP on your one-room apartment’s hi-fi, press play, turn the volume to something reasonable that won’t cause the neighbours to complain, go outside on your balcony with an ice cold beer on a warm summer evening and settle down to enjoy the music, chances are you won’t hear a goshdarned thing. As Above So Below is so soft and hardly there in its sense of the ethereal, that you have to be practically standing in front of the speakers as it plays to get any sense of conveyance.
In essence, then, As Above So Below is an EP that demands attention, and though patience does yield some rewards – the duo’s harmonizing creates a kind of hypnotic effect that recalls the timbre of Karen Carpenter – you do get a sense that the Azure Ray camp is riding a little hard on their electronica heritage. Yes, this band contributed to a two-minute track on Moby’s 2002 album 18. And, yes, Fink deliberately name-checks James (“Am I or Am I Not Dubstep?”) Blake as a source of inspiration in the press release that accompanies this EP. There’s a reason for that: As Above So Below is barely there in its lush yet thinly painted soundscapes, creating the same sort of hush that those following Blake’s trajectory would be well familiar with. Heck, the song “The Heart Has Its Reasons” practically rides the same piano chord throughout most of its runtime. Simple and hardly textured is the name of the game here, and the duo tries to take some garish sound effects and transpose them into actual beats to change up the game a little.
Album opener “Scattered Like Leaves” does boast a glorious image: “There’s love everywhere / There’s sadness everywhere / So I keep moving, I keep moving on”, as though the narrator is unsure as to what she is looking for. But, it’s a bit ironic, as the song doesn’t really move itself, merely built upon the same fundamental melody throughout. “Red Balloon”, meanwhile, mostly feels pieced together in one songwriting session – it only really comes briefly alive during the chorus. The rest of it is just static, or white noise that doesn’t really congeal or go anywhere. “To This Life” does offer a buh-buh-ba-dah vocal section in the most perfectly pop sense, but it’s a bit of sluggish pseudo-R&B, and it generally fails to impress. Tinkle ballad “The Heart Has Its Reasons” does trot out an interesting chord progression once it runs out of room to milk the same chord. In other words, it’s pretty elementary and rote. It isn’t until the final song, “We Could Wake”, that something substantial actually sticks with you in the long run, with its minor key piano vamping.
While As Above So Below might be a much sparser affair than past Azure Ray efforts, being minimal still requires an ear for an interesting idea or a feeling of ambience that could only be produced in the most striking and usually not frequently visited environments. (After all, Brian Eno figured out the theory of ambient music reportedly from a hospital bed, and made an album that could be played in airports.) But As Above So Below feels hastily cobbled together, as though its makers were trying to get the whole thing together before one of the principle player’s water broke, and there’s not an awful lot that will appease anyone looking for anything remotely melodic. Overall, the album is essentially mediocre. There are germs of interesting ideas here and there, but ultimately one gets a certain feeling when listening to this particular Saddle Creek band du jour: if you walk away feeling anything more than underwhelmed, you didn’t try the balcony test.