Like meeting up with an old friend--who hasn't changed a bit
They're back. After a hiatus of seven years, which saw the release of solo albums from both Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink, the duo have reformed once more as Azure Ray. The release of their fourth full-length, Drawing Down the Moon, will surprise no one: it is a lovely record full of hushed, breathy vocals, ethereal harmonies, and accompaniments that are, on occasion, surprisingly muscular.
Opener "Wake Up Sleepyhead" burbles to life with a harp arpeggio, but is otherwise forgettable and short. Happily, the next three songs show that the band has lost nothing for having taken time off. (A cynic would say that they also show that nothing has been gained, either; more on that later.) "Don’t Leave My Mind", propelled by a simple but meaty bassline and a tasteful drum machine, sounds like a plea to a lover, or possibly a child, who has left the singer for opportunities further afield. It can also be read as a shout out to the band’s fans as well. "In the Fog" is easily the best song on the album, and not coincidentally its most muscular in production, with Fink and Taylor's voices bouyed up by a restless flow of quietly cacphonous guitar rattling and bursts of static.
Following immediately after, "Larraine" returns to the familiar acoustic-guitar-and-twinned-voices template, but the earnest vocals and tuneful singing rescue this from the dreaded strumming-in-the-dorm-hallway doom. Other touches, like a murmuring cello during the chorus, help too.
Sadly, 12 and a half minutes in, and the best songs are in your rearview. "On and on Again" is one of those songs that, well, goes on and on again, with the melody so wavering and tentative as to be nearly nonexistent, and the accompanying strings not so much supporting the tune as replacing it altogether. The next several songs are equally forgettable, and the middle stretch of the record sags alarmingly.
Things pick up again with "Love and Permanence", built around a pulsing guitar effect and some rudimentary machine drumming again. (I'm no fan of drum machines, I'm really not, but on this record they often serve to inject a bit of backbone into several songs that might otherwise lack it.) The tempo is still slow, the subject matter is still angst-riven, but the aural accompaniment is compelling enough to give the listener something to hold on to -- and, it seems, the singer as well. There's even an electric guitar solo! The mellowest you'll ever hear, admittedly, but there it is.
From here, the improvements continue. "Should't Have Loved" sports a quicker tempo and petulant lyrics like "She asks ask no questions / So you don’t lie", and builds to a nice crescendo. "Dancing Ghosts" slows the tempo again, while closer "Walking in Circles" is vintage Azure Ray: an acoustic guitar, a pair of lovely voices, and a tale of woe. Is the title meant to be ironic? A critic (ahem) might accuse the band of picking up exactly where they left off, which could be seen as a disappointment. On the other hand, longtime fans -- and for that matter, newcomers -- might be perfectly happy to discover that the band has stayed true to its origins. Listening to this record is something like meeting up with an old friend, one who hasn't developed any bad habits or annoying quirks in the intervening years. Hey, how often does that happen?