The girls of Azure Ray, Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, are pretty busy these days. In addition to putting out their own records, they've spent the past few years as touring members of Bright Eyes, and contributing vocals to lots of various and sundry records, not the least of which being Moby's latest, 18.
Listening to the fragile, electronic tinged acoustic music that the two purvey on Burn and Shiver, their second full-length release, it's almost impossible to believe that at one point, the vehicle for their songs was a four-piece rock band. Yet it's true: Fink and Taylor introduced themselves to the world back in 1997 with Who Did You Pay, their band Little Red Rocket's debut. Plying a brand of alterna-rock that was quite familiar to anyone who's ever heard Belly or the Throwing Muses, LRR were good, but not great. The band eventually got signed to Geffen, but was subsequently dropped before they had even begun recording on their sophomore release.
In the meantime, Fink and Taylor banded together with some other like-minded musicians and brought out an entirely new band, Azure Ray, whose self-titled debut proceeded to garner much more attention and positive press than Little Red Rocket ever did. And with good reason: Azure Ray presented the pair's voices in as unadulterated a fashion as possible, all breathy and sighing and dreamy. Eric Bachmann's (Crooked Fingers, ex-Archers of Loaf) intimate production touches and subtle use of electronic beds made the record just that much more appealing.
Bachmann returns to produce Burn and Shiver, which adds to the seamless transition between the two records. Not a lot has changed this time around -- Taylor and Fink still croon and sigh as demurely as ever, and the instrumental backing is as subtle and insinuating as ever. Songs like "How You Remember", with its subtle horns and vaguely Morricone-ish guitars, and "The New Year", with its electronics pushed up a little further in the mix than they have been before, are examples of hoe Azure Ray continue to grow while still retaining pretty much all of the attributes that caused them to become popular in the first place.
Although Burn and Shiver is probably a more consistent record than its predecessor, it should also be noted that there isn't really anything here that leaps out and tickles the ears the way "Displaced" or "Sleep" from their debut did. Although "How You Remember" and the closer "Rest Your Eyes" come close, they're the only tracks here that really stand out from the pack. This can mostly be attributed the relentlessly slow, extremely melancholy nature of the songs on Burn and Shiver. "How You Remember" bumps up the tempo just a hair, and varies the instrumentation just enough to make it stand out, and the guitar figure in "Rest Your Eyes" is likewise just jaunty enough to distinguish it from its neighbors.
In fact, my main complaint with Burn and Shiver is that it's just so unvaryingly pretty, and mines the same mood throughout its entire duration, that I find myself nodding off towards the middle of the record. The pair seem to have mastered their formula: two beautiful, intertwining voices, a plucked acoustic guitar, and some miscellaneous background instrumentation (subtly clicking electronic beats, muted horns, ambient washes of keyboard) = an Azure Ray song. While the results are predictably agreeable, this time around, the songs start to come across as somewhat formulaic.
While on the whole, Burn and Shiver is another successful foray into the sleepy, gothic, mournful world of Azure Ray, I'd really like to see Fink and Taylor shake up the formula a bit next time around, as at this point, it seems like they could write these songs in their sleep. While there's nothing wrong with an artist playing to his or her strengths, after awhile, one starts to get the sense that they aren't challenging themselves quite enough. While not everyone needs to go the route of Neil Young and refuse to stay put for two albums in a row, its nonetheless nice to see a musician that puts it on the line. While some of these experiments are inevitably doomed to failure, its really the only way to guard against complacency. At this point, I'm not accusing Azure Ray of becoming complacent. However, I am putting the word out that they are in danger of slipping into a rut. A very pretty, likeable rut, but a rut nonetheless.