Reviews

Hold On Love

Author: Chad Radford
11/19/2003 | Creative Loafing | www.creativeloafing.com | Album Review
The lonely and expansive plains surrounding Omaha, Nebraska in the early stages of winter are a fitting scene for the reemergence of Azure Ray. There's a melancholy charm inherent in the landscape as it tilts on the cusp of sweltering summer heat and the frozen slumber of winter.

For Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, the formerly Athens-based duo Azure Ray, last year's November EP serves as no small metaphor for their impending move to the Midwest. Icy drones shrouded in subtle shifts between embracing and rejecting traditional songwriting give the recording a transitory feel. And just as spring looms in the distance, Fink and Taylor have returned with Hold On Love, the duo's third full-length; it offers a collection of songs that are more textured and emotionally refined than ever before.

From the onset of the sexually-charged pulse of "New Resolution" to the uncharacteristically upbeat "If You Fall," Hold On Love is the group's most accomplished recording to date. According to Fink, when writing the previous full-length - 2002's Burn & Shiver (WARM Electronic Recordings) - both she and Taylor had lost interest in traditional song writing.

"We wanted to write a record where the songs appeared exactly as they came out of us," says Fink. "Whatever came out came out, and we wanted to convey strong feelings as opposed to verse-chorus-verse-chorus," she continues. "After having done that with Burn & Shiver, we decided to make a move back toward writing more structured songs and wanted to see if the process would somehow be renewed or refreshing for us after such a departure, and it was."

A Much-Needed Jump

The process was nothing new to Fink and Taylor. Their first forays into songwriting go all the way back to their hometown of Birmingham, AL in the early '90s. After meeting in high school, the two joined forces in the indie/garage pop band, Little Red Rocket.
If we were unattractive guys we wouldn�t have a full-page
From the first, it was obvious that when combined their haunting voices were the most distinctive element of the music. It wasn't until relocating to Athens and reconvening as a duo that they began to harness their ethereal vocal abilities.

"We had been playing in a rock band for almost five years," adds Fink. "Azure Ray came as a much-needed jump for us in a different direction."

The two also made passing appearances playing and recording alongside local fixtures: Japancakes, David Barbe, Elf Power and a few others. In time, they focused their attention on Azure Ray. But unable to stay settled for too long, the two teamed up with vocalist/Chase Park producer Andy LeMaster (Bright Eyes, David Dondero) and percussionist Clay Leverett to form the group Now It's Overhead, and went on to release a self-titled recording on Omaha's Saddle Creek Records in 2001.

Previous to working with Now It's Overhead, Azure Ray debuted in 2001 with its own self-titled outing on Brian Causey's label, WARM Electronic Recordings. Burn & Shiver was also released by WARM a year later, but it didn't take long for Saddle Creek to scoop up Azure Ray and release the November EP the same year.

Someplace Else For A While

Omaha seemed an inviting place for Azure Ray since the city began drawing national attention as a thriving musical community that was home to their new label, as well as label mates Bright Eyes, Cursive and the Faint. Doubled with Fink's budding romantic involvement with the Faint's vocalist Todd Baechle, the move was inevitable. "We had been living in Athens for five years and we talked about it a lot and decided that it wouldn't hurt to try someplace else for a while," Fink says.

The blue-collar and conservative leanings of Omaha are a far cry from Athens' flourishing arts community and collegiate environment, but upon arrival Azure Ray adjusted to its new surroundings and continued working.

"Omaha and Athens are two very different towns, but the musicianship and the musical communities are very similar," explains Fink. "There are a lot of talented bands and songwriters in a small area and they all are very supportive of each other. They're exactly alike in that sense and that's why there's such an Omaha/Athens kinship. But as far as the cities themselves are concerned, Athens is at more of an advantage because it has such an eclectic arts community. It's a college town and there's a great art scene and great bars that are all condensed into one little area. Omaha is an insurance company town where an art scene hasn't fully developed. There are great people working on it, but there just isn't the city to support it. It's getting so much attention in the media, but there really aren't even any music venues there. A lot of bands play at Sokol Hall, but that's a polka hall where people rent a P.A. and put on shows. Omaha is not what people make it out to be, but it is a great place and we're having a great time living there. It's vastly different from Athens."

It Happened Organically

Hold On Love, the group's first release since moving to Omaha, is a stylistic departure for Azure Ray that remains true to the murky sound for which it has come to be known. Decidedly less despondent than the group's previous outings, the songwriting on Hold On Love changes course by way of waltzing piano lines and subtle additions of sampled drums, electronics and a relaxed demeanor. Songs like "The Devil's Feet," "Look To Me" and "The Drinks We Drank Last Night" are familiar reference points in the context of the group's previous endeavors. But the poignant nature of these songs blends seamlessly into the buoyant direction of the rest of the recording.

"Thematically, we started writing more upbeat songs and the arrangements lent themselves to that on this record," adds Fink. "It happened organically, and we also had a much bigger studio and a whole month to put everything together. We had more time and means at our disposal, so everything came out much fuller than before."

What's more, the recording was produced by Crooked Fingers singer/guitarist and former Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann. Hold On Love isn't the first Azure Ray recording produced by Bachmann; his association with the group extends as far back as producer, performer and arranger for the group's debut release, as well as Burn & Shiver. And although Fink and Taylor are quick to defend him as playing an important role in shaping their sound, they feel the media's portrayal of Bachmann in the group is a bit misleading.

"We like to give credit where credit is due, but he's not a member of the group," says Fink. "He produced three of our records and he is to us what Brian Eno is to U2 or what George Martin was to the Beatles - not that we're comparing ourselves to these groups - but he's our producer, so of course he plays a big role. But we've been getting asked about him a lot lately and I'm wondering if it's because we're two girls that everyone is saying he plays such a huge role our music. Everyone has a producer, but they don't get asked if their producer is part of their band. We write every song from start to finish, ourselves and it's hard to address the issue without sounding negative."

When pondering whether or not the group might be treated differently if it were made up of two men, Fink cautiously answers, "We take a lot of care in picking people to work with and gravitating toward people who are respectful of women as musicians and consider us to be their peers, not just two girls who got lucky. We hear a lot of comments like, 'how did you guys get this magazine article?' or 'how did you get this tour?'... We got them by touring together for 10 years and putting out five records," she continues. "Yes, it is safe to say that if we were a couple of unattractive guys we wouldn't have a full-page spread in a magazine like Vanity Fair, but it's a complicated issue and I try not to spend time worrying about it."

Where It All Goes

Through it all Azure Ray forges ahead. For the current tour the group has enlisted the Crooked Fingers backing band - guitarist Barton Carroll and drummer Dov Friedman - for its live show, and in turn Fink and Taylor are performing as members of Crooked Fingers' band.

When the tour is finished Azure Ray's plans remain unsettled. Fink is content staying in Omaha for a while, but Taylor has made plans to move back to the South to escape the unforgiving Midwestern winters. In the meantime, a second Now It's Overhead full-length is slated for release on Saddle Creek in early Spring, but beyond that is yet to be determined.

"We're taking it one day at a time," says Fink. "We still have a lot of touring to get through, and when that's done, we'll take some time off and see where it all goes from there."
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