PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Azure Ray: Hold on Love

Rob Horning

Azure Ray

Hold on Love

Label: Saddle Creek
US Release Date: 2003-10-07
UK Release Date: 2003-10-06

One of those bands who equate slow, repetitious dirges with dreamy contemplation, Azure Ray are likely to try the patience of the average listener, who will quite possibly feel excluded from their muffled, hermetic world rather than lulled into it by their spare piano-based melodies and their ethereal harmonizing. To its credit, Hold on Love has a few songs that break from this monotony, demonstrating the musical scope and emotional range the band is capable of (and proving the repetitiousness results from stubbornness rather than limitation). "If You Fall" is positively spritely, with a jaunty piano part and optimistic verses that could have come straight off a sunshine-pop record. "Nothing Like A Song" borrows from Terry Jacks's melodramatic '70s hit "Seasons in the Sun", and has an actual chorus to complement and intensify the momentum gathered by the verses, giving the song the satisfying sense of having completed a movement, of having fulfilled itself. And "New Resolution" is positively cinematic, a complete departure from the impassive catatonia that otherwise typifies Azure Ray's sound.

Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, the women who make up the band, both have high, clear voices that blend together effortlessly and inseparably, with a kind of purity that makes them crystalline, icy, almost mechanical -- they are always on the verge of sounding like the choir sample on a Radio Shack keyboard. That's probably by design, part of their effort to cast themselves as goth angels of some sort, but it's a shame too, as their songs really come to life when their voices show some grit, as on "Look to Me", whose lyrics suggest a willingness to confront rather than to withdraw. But such engagement is rare. Azure Ray's music, and perhaps all mopey slowcore in general, seems engineered to celebrate disengagement. Often, the space created by their work feels like a teenager's bedroom with the door shut; while you know some serious sulking is happening on the other side, you know also that the misery is an indulgent luxury, a comfortable retreat from the real pain that comes from actually struggling to fix things.

A song like "We Are Mice" evinces this obstinate refusal to change: Its structure consists of a single part, the pace of the singing never varies, and the instrumentation steadfastly eschews dynamics, or any tension-building feature altogether. I'm surprised how often Azure Ray's albums are called "cathartic" -- to me they seem the very opposite, they seem to defer resolution completely; even their beginnings and endings feel provisional. You long for something contrapuntal in the harmonies or in the different instruments, but every musical component feels locked to a grid -- this subverts the opportunities for space normally afforded by slow tempos, and creates instead an ominous air of claustrophobia.

Frequently, to further negate the possibility of warmth or spontaneity, producer Eric Bachmann augments the songs with laconic, echoing electronic beats that sound like the slow motion chugging of creaky old industrial machines. Perhaps in their rejection of spontaneity and their refusal to offer variety, Azure Ray intend to dignify stasis, the trapped feeling that comes with depression or with the recognition that one's real choices in the world are circumscribed. Azure Ray's airy, nearly inhuman rigor conjures a specific form of spirituality that posits a heaven that won't have you, as in David Lynch's Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk with Me, where the doomed Laura Palmer has visions of angels abandoning her. This may seem a random comparison, but Hold on Love often resembles the soundtrack Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise (whose own voice would fit right in with Fink's and Taylor's) furnished for Twin Peaks.

The album seems to strive for the same mood Badalamenti conjured: an evocation of the sinister foreboding that the vulnerability of innocence can inspire and the clinical, impossible nature of purity when held up as a standard. In the film especially, the languid, dreamlike soundscapes with Cruise's vocal offers a counterpoint to Laura's increasing desperation and her increasing compulsion to self-destruct: its poised control forms an eloquent, poignant counterpoint to her loss of control. In a key scene where Cruise is singing in a sleazy roadhouse, Laura alone registers the music's fragile beauty, which marks her as singularly sensitive and thus uniquely doomed to suffer. Addressing a listener from an unbridgeable distance, Azure Ray's music, with its equally frail beauty, similarly confirms for him that he can't be reached, that he can't be saved, that in his very helplessness may lie his unique and individuating feature, the thing by which he knows himself, dignifying whatever suffering he feels he has endured by qualifying him to appreciate such chilling, forbidding music.

In other words, Azure Ray glorifies the debilitating aspects of depression -- the alienation, the stasis, the inarticulateness, the futility -- which likely provide great solace to the depressed even as it encourages their surrender to it. It wallows, and makes its wallowing seem pristine rather than foundering. It makes the sullen mood seem like it will last forever, and tries to see something ecstatic in that certainty. That they choose to use their considerable talents this way, I must confess, depresses the hell out of me.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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