[16 August 2011]
Maria Taylor was/is one half—the better half—of the melancholic female duo Azure Ray, formerly Little Red Rocket. Taylor was the one who provided the sweet melodies to counter Orenda Fink’s a-melodic droning. Taylor most often saved the band from the incomprehensible blandness that Fink was driving towards. Luckily, they disbanded in 2004 and Taylor was free to create the kinds of songs she was struggling to bring forward while trapped in the duo—this, of course, is my interpretation and Taylor could have been wonderfully content with the status of Azure Ray’s career. However, it’s undeniable that the sweetest, most recognizable tunes from Azure Ray’s career are those fronted and written by Taylor. Azure Ray re-banded last year releasing a long awaited follow-up to 2003’s Hold on Love with Drawing Down the Moon—an uneven record featuring the beautiful Taylor-led lead single “Don’t Leave My Mind”. Fortunately, the reuniting of Azure Ray does not preclude Taylor’s own solo career.
Overlook is Taylor’s follow-up to the uncharacteristically quirky 2009 album LadyLuck, which features the heartwarming album closer “Cartoons and Forever Plans” and is accented perfectly by its wonderful music video. Overlook is a definite redirection and a far cry from her first two spectacular solo records 11:11 and Lynn Teeter Flower. Interestingly, the press release indicates that Taylor was suffering through one of her worst writing blocks. Writing block? With two solo records and one Azure Ray album in less than 3 years? I’m beginning to think that poor Taylor really doesn’t understand the definition of a writing block. Some would interpret her writing block as more prolific than most. Unfortunately, what Maria really needed was to resist her need to rush a new release so soon after the reunion of the band that gave her a name. Overlook is superbly unfinished, beautiful in spots, but lackluster in others, coming in at a scant nine tracks.
The album opener is probably the most startling track on the record, and the most memorable. “Masterplan” eases in with a throbbing bass drum, while Taylor sings: “How / Do you emancipate? / Could you / Harbor the silent change? / Could you / Keep pushing through?” The percussion builds and begins clacking in and out in syncopated rhythms, never reaching a full-out beat until halfway through. It leaves the listener unsettled, never giving in to that insatiable need for the song to begin. It’s nothing abrasively new for Taylor, but it’s definitely attention grabbing. Once the song does find its ground, you kind of wish it hadn’t. One thing that is noticeable though is that Taylor wants to rock out—well, as much as she can with her fragile quivering vocal style.
This “rock out” vibe is even more apparent with the second track “Matador”, which is reminiscent of Tori Amos’ “Pancake” from Scarlet’s Walk, only with better lyrics and better music; the similarities are most apparent nearing the end of the bridge. The track switches gears during its bridge-like chorus, where Taylor sings: “They worship and adore / He’s out for blood / He was the chosen son / He was the chosen one / The pitiful deceit has just begun / I was the lucky one / I was the lucky one.” “Matador” is a good song, but only sometimes. In the wrong scenario with the wrong emotional state, it can thoroughly annoy.
Taylor’s desire to rock out is fleeting and, by “Happenstance”, we get more of the melancholic Taylor we’ve come to know and love. “Happenstance” is a beautiful song, especially during the infectious chorus. “Like It Does” is the album highlight. It’s the most heartbreaking track Taylor has delivered since Lynn Teeter Flower‘s “Lost Time”. The song is aching to teach a lesson about inconsideration and carelessness. It’s astute and enlightened, as Taylor sings: “You go back and forth / It’s no direction / You walk hand in hand / It’s not love / You can’t blame the mind for dreaming as it does / Do you feed the void / With your prediction / If you have faith / You’ll rise above / You can’t blame the mind for believing like it does.” But it isn’t until the third verse where Taylor sings the kind of line that most singer-songwriters would kill to write: “Don’t pat your back with good intentions / It’s an excuse for your careless hands / Can’t blame the mind for forgetting / As you can.” It’s painfully simple and unmistakably necessary in this time.
Unfortunately, this is where the album falls flat on its face. The uninspired instrumentation, which could have used some considerable time to flourish, doesn’t help, but with the last half of the record revealing some of Taylor’s worst tracks to date, the whole thing becomes a mess…really fast. The best track on the record is followed by the worst track on the album. “Bad Idea?” is an annoying grassroots ripoff, with a bored Taylor singing in such a way as if to teach you a lesson. You can just picture her wagging finger. The chorus is awful and will stay in your head for weeks and weeks until you’d rather pierce your eye just to switch focus. Although “Idle Mind” tries to recover some semblance of interest, the damage is undoubtedly done. Overlook from here on in becomes an album of filler. You know those tracks on Azure Ray’s albums that you skip? Well, that is precisely what populates the back half of Taylor’s fourth solo record. None of the songs are memorable, none of them are compelling, and all of them are boring. If “Bad Idea?” left you loathing, the last four tracks (maybe save for the fairly adequate album closer “Along for the Ride”), will leave you feeling indifferent—which is worse.
It is definitely unfortunate that Taylor rushed to release Overlook. Given her new Alabama surroundings and west coast groove, the album reveals the beginnings of what could have made for a superbly melodic and atmospheric record. Ultimately, there just isn’t enough content here to drive an entire album, and halfway through Taylor loses her footing—and when you begin on shaky ground to start, maintaining your balance is a tricky thing. Taylor has always managed to convey the most heartbreaking and painstakingly simple sentiments amidst the sparsest instrumentation, while simultaneously demanding your attention. This time around, the attention she usually deserves isn’t as deserving. Let’s hope that she sits herself out for a longer period for her next record, giving her the much needed time to really tighten her art.