I’ve said in the past that a band’s name can often times tell you volumes about their sound. Sadly, Azure Ray could go a million different directions (’80s Swedish speed metal band, anyone?), which is why it helps in these cases to turn to their label. Signed to Conor Oberst’s Saddle Creek, Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink are, musically speaking, a lot like their boss and labelmates: strummy acoustic songwriters influenced by rock and country equally. But unlike Cursive or The Rural Alberta Advantage, Azure Ray have something more in common with dream pop acts: They create gorgeous, ambient tracks that build a platform for warm, glowing harmonies. Like the album’s name implies, they’re creating an ethereal feel, a mood that, while consistent throughout the album, is hit or miss in terms of appeal depending upon where they’re at in the river of their influences.
A sizable portion of the album is uninteresting because it can be perfectly described as the aforementioned strummy acoustic numbers, the kind of derivative tracks that sound like 1,000 other bands who picked up the guitar and/or mandolin, tossed in the buzz of an off-key electric guitar, and finished it all off with vaguely church-esque organs and called it new. Everything is technically spot-on and could be exciting; in fact, some songs are even halfway interesting and work within these confines. “Larraine” is pure poetry, a dark tale of a young woman’s misery that sounds like a cynical and demented version of Jeannie C. Riley. Even “Dancing Ghosts” has enough pop to give it some life. The problem isn’t that it’s not good or even that it’s repetitive and unoriginal. While those are huge concerns, the real problem is that they take space away from stronger material on the album and feel foreign from these dark pixies who are clearly more than alt-country musicians.
Azure Ray’s bread and butter are minimalistic dream pop songs that take in some of the basic mechanics of other genres. Take, for instance, Dont Leave My Mind. The track is the absolute essence of rigid electro music, composed of a simple backing beat. Vocally and lyrically, however, its the essence of doo-wop: all girlish heartache and forlornness and some of the most effervescent yet insightful harmonies out there. Silver Sorrow represents an even more refined alchemy; here, the simplistic acoustic guitar merges with the pops of the particularly robotic drum line, making a track that feels synthetic and entirely natural all in the same instance. Of course, just because its dreamy doesnt mean its good. Sadly, the albums got its share of nightmare dream pop efforts, like Love and Permanence, which dies a slow death before ever getting out of the starting gate.
With Azure Ray, it seems like you really can really judge someone by the company they keep. Sure, they work to extend their musical output beyond the simple realm of folk, but its not enough of a sustained effort, offering too few dreamy gems in the grimy cliff face of gritty country music. Instead, the album is merely worth of the kind of limp-wristed praise of mediocrity, where nothings bad, everythings OK, and it could all be so much more. Seems you cant even blame your friends for that.