Back to Basics: Azure Ray

It takes a real connection to work creatively with someone steadily for more than a decade. But to take a break for several years and then come back takes even more than that.

Azure Ray, the elegantly gothic and hushed pop duo of Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, has done just that.

“We had been working together for a long time, and it just felt like we needed to go find our separate ways for a while,” said Fink of her musical partnership with Taylor, which ended for four years starting in 2004.

The story leading up to that point will be abbreviated here. The two met at an arts high school in their hometown, Birmingham, Ala., and from the beginning, music formed their bond.

By 2001, they had played together for roughly 10 years and had relocated to Athens, where they began performing as Azure Ray. Over the next three years, they toured heavily and released three full-length records, all with critical welcome and decent mainstream exposure — their first album produced a song featured on the soundtrack to “The Devil Wears Prada.”

During their break both Rays continued producing prolifically, each putting out multiple solo records and collaborating with various musicians, including Andy LeMaster of Now Its Overhead and Cedric Lemoyne of Remy Zero.

But over the last two years, the two found themselves in each other’s company more and more often. It only made sense that if they were together, then music would naturally follow.

“Azure Ray is about our friendship, basically, and our closeness,” Fink said. “So if we had that then we should also be making music together, ’cause that was the basis of our friendship to begin with.”

After a few tester shows in 2008 to 2009, the duo recorded its newest album, “Drawing Down the Moon,” released in September.

“The approach coming back after seven years was to really try to revisit a kind of classic Azure Ray sound and re-connect to what it was that was our special collaboration for all those years,” Fink said.

Rather than a dramatic sweep to a new style, Azure Ray’s newest record looked to re-establish the band’s style after seven years without a new album.

“We really tried to hearken back to even our first record and take clues from that or inspiration from that,” Fink said.

The album is full of their trademark whispered, gothic harmonies and variable arrangements, ranging from picked acoustic guitars to industrial steam noises. The so-faint-it’s-almost-not-there element is ever-present, but rather than allowing the listeners to wander off it only pulls them in closer, with subtle variances in melodic rhythms and constant add/loss of musical layers.

The single from the album, “Don’t Leave My Mind,” is a classic example of the band’s delicately spaced melodies that sweep over the music, with the trail of soprano harmony behind. And though the songs don’t often draw physical tension, they often cause a sort of emotional tension between the dark melodies and electronic landscapes, as with track three, “In the Fog,” with its pulsing, heartbeat bass and hissing steam sounds.

Though the quiet and beautiful sound doesn’t necessarily align with generic ideals of Southern music (Skynyrd y’all!), there is something distinctly Southern about “Drawing…”, a vast spaciousness like open prairies filled with a thousand stories and sounds.

“I think [the Southern feeling] kind of manifests itself in unusual ways that you don’t really think about it, but when you kind of reflect on it you can of see it,” Fink said.

Friday’s performance at the 40 Watt will mark the duo’s return to the stage in Athens, the town of the band’s birth.

Original online publication

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