Music

Azure Ray: As Above So Below EP

As Above So Below is so soft and hardly there in its sense of the ethereal, you have to be practically standing in front of the speakers as it plays to get any sense of conveyance.


Azure Ray

As Above So Below EP

Label: Saddle Creek
US Release Date: 2012-09-04
UK Release Date: 2012-09-04
Amazon
iTunes

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.

5

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image