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
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Film

Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.

Film

The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.

Books

'The Kill Chain': Why America Might Lose Its Next Big War

Christian Brose's defense-nerd position paper, The Kill Chain, inadvertently reveals that the Pentagon's problems (complacency, inertia, arrogance) reflect those of the country at large.

Music

2006's 'Flat-Pack Philosophy' Saw Buzzcocks Determined to Build Something of Quality

With a four-decade career under their belt, on the sixth disc in the new box-set Sell You Everything, it's heartening to see Buzzcocks refusing to settle for an album that didn't try something new.

Books

'Lie With Me': Beauty, Love and Toxic Masculinity in the Gay '80s

How do we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it? Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is equal parts poignant tribute and glaring warning.

Music

Apparat's 'Soundtrack: Capri-Revolution' Stands Alone As a Great Ambient Experience

Apparat's (aka Sascha Ring) re-imagined score from Mario Martone's 2018 Capri-Revolution works as a fine accompaniment to a meditational flight of fancy.

Music

Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers Merge Haitian Folk and Electronic Music on 'Vodou Alé'

Haitian roots music meets innovative electronics on Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers' Vodou Alé.

My Favorite Thing

Weird and Sweet, Riotous and Hushed: The Beatles' 'The White Album'

The Beatles' 'The White Album' is a piece of art that demonstrates how much you can stretch, how far you can bend, how big you really are. The album is deeply weird. It has mass. It has its own weather.

Music

Sarah Jarosz Finds Inspiration in Her Texas Roots on 'World on the Ground'

By turning to her roots in central Texas for inspiration on World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz has crafted some of her strongest songs yet.

Music

Hinds' 'The Prettiest Curse' Is One of Victory

On The Prettiest Curse, Hinds create messy pop music that captures the vibrancy of youth without being childish.

Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.