By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
"We started the band because we were writing these more introspective, reflective songs," says Orenda Fink, half of the Omaha, Nebraska, duo that also includes fellow singer/guitarist Maria Taylor. "They were cathartic in the sense that they were comforting to us. They were kind of written to be personally consoling, and that whole idea lent itself to a more quiet sound. You just can't really do that in a rock band; it's a different kind of feel."
The rock band she's speaking of is Little Red Rocket, the power-pop group that she and Taylor formed in the mid-'90s. Signed and then dropped by Geffen Records before it could even release an album, Little Red Rocket nonetheless proved to be an unlikely launchpad for Azure Ray's lush, melancholic sound. "We did the rock band for four or five years, and we were getting to the point where we writing material that didn't fit in," Fink elaborates. "We were having a hard time reconciling it. It just didn't work out; not everybody was in the same place. That's when we decided to just keep it the two of us, just so we had complete control over everything. With Azure Ray, we never have to stick to one particular sound or put any limitations on it." Richly adorned with strings, horns, acoustic guitars, pedal steel, piano and the occasional drum loop, the music the twosome creates today can barely be categorized; it's kind of like the chamber-pop soundtrack for putting on fuzzy sweaters and watching the world around you turn brown and float to the ground.
Fink and Taylor began playing together at age fifteen, while attending the Alabama School of Fine Arts; imagine Fame set in a Flannery O'Connor short story. Strangely, though, neither of them has ever studied music. Of course, being autodidactic is not unusual in the world of indie rock, but making such accomplished music certainly is.
"We're both self-taught," says Fink. "We met in fine-arts school, but I studied theater and Maria studied dance. But we have been doing this for eleven years, and music has been our lives that entire time. Even though we haven't been classically trained in music, we know a lot about it intuitively."
It's easy to misinterpret Azure Ray's oeuvre as having been influenced by classical training. Much of the group's work has a strong neo-classical streak -- a highly developed sense of ornament and arrangement that echoes the sophisticated pop of late-'60s groups like the Left Banke and the Zombies.
Take, for instance, "If You Fall," a cut from Hold On Love, Azure Ray's fourth and newest disc. The song starts out with a bubbly piano riff off of which contrapuntal bass and guitar lines are bounced. Disarming harmonies are woven together as Fink and Taylor, a bit self-referentially, purr the lines "Let's sing, and we'll fill the air with melodies that blend together/ You speak so sweet with words so delicate, a glass I hope will never shatter." The whole thing builds to gentle crescendo before finally dissolving into a limpid pool of cello and violin. "Nothing Like a Song" is even frillier, complete with a Baroque piano solo and a treacle of strings that ideally frame the track's bittersweet sentiment: "And when you wake up freezing in a room dark and empty/Well, keep singing along/I'm not what you write in your books/And no I'm nothing like a song."
But Hold On Love draws upon many disparate sources, from the art-pop sensibilities of Kate Bush to the balladry of Christine McVie or Tori Amos, minus the latter's shrill, psychosexual mysticism. Accordingly, the album is centered on the piano, as played by one Eric Bachmann -- known by many as the genius behind indie legends Archers of Loaf and, currently, Crooked Fingers. Bachmann, however, does more than merely man the keys for Azure Ray; since its inception five years ago, he's served as the group's producer, arranger, tour mate and all-around cheerleader.
"Eric's involvement just kind of came out of the blue," Fink remembers. "He was friends with a friend of ours. This was before we even had a name for the band; we were just playing acoustic then, the two of us. So we met Eric under those circumstances. He was just like, ŒHey, I'll produce your stuff for you.' The result was Azure Ray's eponymous debut, a hauntingly gorgeous record that, although already exhibiting the first signs of evolution, was a more orthodox, guitar-based affair. Bachmann's presence permeates the disc, which is awash in flourishes of texture and ambience.