Azure Ray: Hold on Love

Azure Ray
Hold on Love
Saddle Creek

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.