One half of ethereal dream poppers Azure Ray gathers a full band and takes a turn towards the rock. Orenda Fink still sounds like part of heaven's choir, but now she's got a beat.
The late, lamented Azure Ray could sound like a waking dream, the voices of Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor spinning breathy, delicate washes of gorgeous femininity. You could get lost in songs like "November", unanchored by any sort of beat or traditional song structure, simply floating on those gentle waves of sound. Now, after a solo album (the world-influenced Invisible Ones), Orenda Fink has gathered a rock band around her; and perhaps in competition with brash beats and distorted guitars, her voice has taken on a deeper, more soulful timbre. She remains ethereal, even hallucinogenic in places, but there's a blues-growl buried in the lower notes. "Oh time," she murmurs, in album opener "Time Gets Us All", and the break in her bell-clear voice bespeaks weariness, acceptance and maturity.
Fink's band, drawn from people she'd played with on the long tour supporting Invisible Ones, puts an edge and urgency under her songs. The frantic scrub of guitar chords, the insistent plink of piano, the thump and crash of drums pushes things forward, even as Fink's dream-like narratives unfold at leisure. It's the contradiction between rock structures and free-form, unfettered melodies that makes the record so interesting. For instance, "I Thought I Was Free" might just be a sad folk song. Yet the instrumental backing gives it an irresistible sense of motion and pace. The slow marching beat turns its rueful melody into something about survival and hope. And in the title track, fragile folk verses burst into flames at the chorus, drums going off in bursts and cymbal clashes under Fink's climactically held notes.
Set the Woods on Fire is divided, roughly evenly, into taut, sinewy rockers and evanescent ballads, though the distinction breaks down in spots, with Fink's narcotic voice rising bliss-like out of staccato rock beats. "Our Addictions", maybe the hardest-edged song on the disc, starts in a buzz-cut thicket of distorted guitar and drums, and Fink's voice swells to a wail at the choruses. Yet even within this confrontational context, the vocals sink to a whisper in places and in others billow into pretty miasmas of "oo-oohs" and "aahs".
The songwriting is rather good, juxtaposing achingly pretty melodies against abrasive, rock-centric beats. Yet even so the oddest, but in some ways also the most compelling track on the disc is a cover. Fink's take on Les Savvy Fav's "Sweat Descends" transforms its stutter punk jitteriness into something sensual and haunting. She finds a very female sexual heat in this cut, a murmured "And Sweat Descends" evoking the hidden, private world of woman's response to a man, "one cocksure fox in a house of hens". The cut is sliced through with acoustic guitar strumming, their stop start rhythms (sort of Evens-ish) lending an off-kilter urgency. Yet the piece is reels with high, wordless vocals, careening in ribbons and flourishes over the main verse and chorus. Restraint and excess, prettiness and harshness exist in nearly perfect harmony in the cut, which sits almost exactly on the fulcrum that balances Fink's rock side with her new age-y balladry.
Art in Manila trades a little of Azure Ray's otherworldly beauty for its ability to rock out. A couple of late album tracks -- "Spirit Rise" and "The Game" -- have a bit of 1990s Lilith Fair slickness to them, which is somewhat offputting. However, for the most part Fink balances translucent beauty with abrasive urgency... a difficult trick, but well worth trying.