Time of the Season
It's easy to see why autumn is a lot of people's favorite season. For one thing, it isn't so goddamn hot. Summer simmers down to a chilly lull, leaves put on a patina of rust, and the smarter mammals bury themselves in hibernation. At its heart, though, autumn is palpably rotten. You can almost smell the bug larvae curdling in puddles; you can almost taste the wind-borne freezer burn of winter. The air becomes stale, desolate, desiccated. Meanwhile, the sky itself starts to bruise, turning a deeper hue of blue as the lengthening evenings seep into the ozone. Autumn also happens to be the perfect time to listen to Azure Ray.
"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.
"We really enjoyed the collaboration," says Fink, "so we decided we might as well keep doing records with him, see how far we can go with it."
As much as they value Bachmann's contribution, though, Fink and Taylor are wary of people misconstruing his role in Azure Ray. Because he's listed as both producer and arranger on all their albums, some have concluded that Bachmann is the Svengali and the group itself a mere prefabrication. Not that such a setup is without precedent: Dual-woman teams from T'Pau to Tatu have served as empty figureheads for some really bad music over the last few decades.
"We write the songs, start to finish, ourselves," Fink asserts. "We already have a structure and a main melody, and then we demo everything before taking it to Eric. He basically builds the soundscape around that. He'll say, 'Well, this song might sound good on piano instead of guitar.' So we'll all talk it over and decide what to do. Sometimes I think it's misleading to list him as an arranger. He'll write string arrangements and stuff, but he doesn't actually arrange the songs.
"I feel that's kind of what a producer does, especially with a band like us, which is just two people," Fink adds. "I think it's a natural thing for us to want the songs to come to their full potential. If the song is really just about having an acoustic guitar and a voice, then that's the way we'll let it live. We just try to think of ways to approach each song individually. If we think it needs huge strings and horns and drums, then we'll do it, regardless of whether or not we have those instruments in our band. Unlike a rock band, we have a lot of freedom to do anything we want with the songs. It doesn't have to sound like our band or even be played by us, necessarily."
In addition to its revolving studio lineup, Azure Ray employs a shifting roster of players on stage to add flesh and weight to its compositions. "The instrumentation we take with us on tour just kind of depends on the situation," explains Fink. "We don't do the same thing every time. A lot of the time it's just me and Maria and one other person. We're touring with Crooked Fingers right now, so they're our backup band. There's five of us: a drummer, an upright-bass player, and Eric on piano."
But Bachmann isn't the only high-profile collaborator Azure Ray has brought on board. Brian Causey of Man or Astroman! and the Causey Way was an early booster and a contributor. Fink and Taylor have also recorded and toured with fellow Saddle Creek act Bright Eyes; on Hold On Love, the outfit is joined by another label mate, Clark Baechle of the Faint, who lays down some glitch-heavy beats on the elegiac "The Devil's Feet" and the spectral "We Are Mice." Almost as a preparation for such digital embellishment, a couple of years ago Azure Ray joined forces with one of the biggest names in electronic music: Moby. The duo co-wrote and played on the track "Great Escape" from that cue-balled performer's hit 2002 album, 18.
"Some friends of ours were being managed by Moby's manager at the time. So they gave him one of our CDs and said, 'If you can help these girls out, you should.' We were really broke at that point," Fink recalls with a laugh. "Moby was looking for songwriters for his new record, and he liked our tape, so he contacted us and said, 'Would you be interested in collaborating on some songs to see if it'll work out?' So we went to New York and recorded with him. It was fun. It didn't really change our lives at all, but it was a good experience.
"And then," she continues, "we toured with him for two weeks. That wasn't the greatest, actually. Everyone was very nice to us, but it's really better to play to a small room of people who are there to see you than to play in front of 3,000 people who aren't. I mean, Moby's crowd was really respectful of what we were doing -- even more so than we had expected. But you're just up on this huge stage, very much removed from all these people. You don't have that interaction with them, that exchange of energy."
For a band like Azure Ray, such intimacy is vital. As withdrawn and maudlin as their songs can sometimes sound, Fink and Taylor hollow out their insides and plop them on listeners' laps, leaving nothing but a brittle, beautiful husk of melody. And although the warm, ethereal sound suits them like an angora pullover, one wonders if the two friends ever miss cranking up the amps and bashing out the noise like in the Little Red Rocket days.
"No, not yet," says Fink. "We get to rock out with bands like Bright Eyes and Crooked Fingers, so we kind of have that need fulfilled in other ways. But who knows? We might do more rock stuff in the future. We really go record by record, whatever we're inspired to do. But it's not like we sit around saying, 'Oh, we miss the good old days when we were rockin' out.' I think some bands go back to being more rock because they're trying to feel young again. We'd never want to be like that.
"Rock music is great, and it's a release," she goes on, sounding a bit nostalgic for the summer of her career, before the trees were steeped in sepia and the dusk of autumn spread across the sky. "The music we make now is just a different kind of release."
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