Second Look: Azure Ray – Azure Ray

Azure Ray – the legendary dreampop duo of Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink – are not a big band. They don’t have a big sound, they are made up of only two people, and their discography is only four LPs long, spread over nine years. After releasing their first three – Azure Ray, Burn and Shiver, and Hold on Love – across a truly prolific three-year span in the early 2000s, they took a hiatus to focus on other projects, such as Taylor’s lovely debut 11:11 and Fink’s bewitching Invisible Ones (along with a myriad of other bands she busied herself with in the interim). In 2010, they came back together to release a shimmering, airy new record, Drawing Down the Moon, which felt a bit like checking in with old friends we hadn’t seen in a while. But since then, they’ve been on hiatus again, and haven’t released any full-length albums in the wake.

Some tours and EPs notwithstanding, the band has been quiet, focusing on other projects and whatever else life threw at them. So imagine the glow of excitement that arose within many of us when, somewhat out of the blue, the duo announced a reissue of their beloved self-titled debut album, releasing it on vinyl for the first time ever — and on their own label, no less.

As confirmed in our chat for Meet Our Makers, this experience was a real labor of love. The duo spent a lot of time going through the archives, uncovering photos and notes from a bygone era in their shared lives. As some may already know, the origin of the band itself was borne by heartbreak and grief, as they mourned the loss of their ex-bandmate (and Maria’s then-boyfriend). The two combined forces, never intending the songs to be heard so much as serve as a way for them to work through their grief. But, after linking up with Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann, almost by chance, the pair were recording the songs in a proper studio, and the songs became their debut album.

It’s a fraught backstory, and even if you didn’t know it, you’d be able to tell by the music. Taylor and Fink had a unique sound, something that felt profoundly insular – and yet welcoming, almost like we were being let in a secret from a close friend. The duo’s vocals – trading off lead and harmony depending on the song – were quiet, downright hushed at times, like they were singing a half-inch from the mic. Their instrumentals were gentle and sparkling, like delicate icicles with the sun darting through. But, despite the music box-delicacy of their sound, Azure Ray was full of barely-submerged emotion. They didn’t have to overexert themselves to betray the heartache and longing in their work: the music, their voices, and their moving lyrics all combined to tell us exactly what we needed to know, and nothing more.

From the opening nightlight piano plinking of “Sleep” (which has gone on to become what is perhaps their most recognizable song), it is clear we are in a world of their own making. “Fill these spaces up with days / in my room, you can go, you can stay” sings Taylor in a slightly dejected tone. “I can’t sleep / I can’t speak to you,” she continues. The despondency of the lyric is reflected perfectly in the vocal, the melody, and the soundscape. A whirling, gorgeous synth repeats in the background, almost like a gently-garbled tape loop. Fink’s harmonies on certain words like “sleep” in the chorus leave an indelible mark, and then the song fades away ever-so-softly. It’s a lullaby about being kept awake, perhaps due to things you’d rather not face but keep you sleepless nonetheless (“All these years locked in my drawer / I’ll open to see, just to be sure”). The tenor of most of these songs is quite sad, but the album doesn’t leave you feeling sad, because of the way these songs are composed and performed.

After the striking opening, we get another of their trademark songs in “Displaced”. One of the few songs here that hints at something positive or hopeful, the song seems to be about acknowledging and being grateful for a close friendship. Taylor sings, “She’s my friend of all friends / She is still here / Everyone’s gone,” admitting that even in this impossibly dark time, she’s glad she has a friend by her side. As listeners, we can presume it’s Fink, whose impeccable harmonies on this song are truly beautiful. Fink takes lead plenty on the album, but she also has an uncanny knack for harmonies that are just as stunning as the lead melody — while being totally complimentary to it.

The first two songs on Azure Ray give a very good indication of where this record goes on to. If you listen to these two songs and it’s not for you, odds are neither will the remaining tracks. That isn’t to say there is no variety here, of course. Across the remaining songs, we get the creepy, dusky, tape-hiss-laden “Don’t Make a Sound”; the warm Southern Gothic balm of “4th of July”; the almost-whispered reveries of “Safe and Sound”. The songs are sequenced perfectly, allowing the differences to feel anything but jarring, subtle but noticeable. When the weird 30-second interlude “Untitled” gives way to the lonesome piano of “Another Week”, it feels totally natural, as does that song’s being followed by the melancholy minimalism of “Rise”.

The thing about Azure Ray is that it’s not just music box-like in sound, but also in its actual execution. It’s structured so tightly, every piece and sound and texture exactly where it needs to be, not a hair out of place. It’s so full of detail, and yet it feels effortless.

The tiny percolating beat on “Rise” hits like a sledgehammer despite being anything but thunderous. The vocal on “Another Week” is echoed by a strange version of itself, like an auditory funhouse mirror, beckoning from behind the veil as Fink sings woefully about a man who makes her “lonely when he knocks on [her] door.” There’s a woozy quality to the song that befits the emotional undercurrent perfectly. There’s the way the bells in the slow-motion ballad “Fever” feel like they’re being hit as dispassionately as possible, mirroring the pleas for peace in the lyric. There’s the way strings effortlessly fall into “Safe and Sound” without overwhelming the spiderweb of a song. And perhaps most striking of all: when “4th of July”, at the very end, simply melts away into a profoundly minor chord slurry, the slide guitar going decidedly sour.

It’s moments like these, and many more, that help make Azure Ray such a successful record, but it really all comes down to the fact that Taylor and Fink were (and still are) such skilled writers and sound crafters. (It’s also why it’s so exciting they’re reportedly working on new music — they’re the kind of duo whose fans will follow in whichever direction they choose to go.) Listening to this album, or even anything from their others (especially their sophomore record Burn and Shiver), shows what deft architects of miniatures they are. They know exactly what they want to be and they do it, and isn’t that something any of us would hope for?

With the help of Bachmann, who would go on to produce their next three albums too, they crafted a world all their own on Azure Ray. They may not be the strongest vocalists on a technical level, and their songs are surely quite small in scale compared to bigger pop songs that rule the airwaves and Spotify playlists, but their work is characterized by a kind of honesty and quietude that is hard to come by in popular music, an appreciation for subtlety and minute detail that often gets overlooked. It’s the kind of work that feels like it was made just for you, trickling through your ears like a memory.

In the chorus of “Displaced”, Taylor and Fink, voices intertwining, wonder, “Am I making something worthwhile / Out of this place?” It’s an understandable emotion to see displayed by two people experiencing, and still processing, serious loss. There’s a rudderless quality that sometimes comes with life’s biggest challenges. But the fact that this album even exists, and is still so important to many of us, is proof that they were, in fact, making something worthwhile, and we can all be thankful for that.