By Joe Vena
Azure Ray is a band that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. When I first heard their self-titled record back when I was about 13, a time when I wasn’t jamming much more than mall metal, it blew me away even though it wasn’t anywhere near any sort of style of music I listened to at the time. Their meager, thinly layered trancelike songs were unlike I had anything I had heard at the time, and introduced me to a whole new spectrum of music left field of what I was used to.
Azure Ray is part of the reason for the expansion of my musical tastes, and I cite them for my intense love of dream pop today. I followed them through the following two years and their other two equally fantastic Cocteau Twins-style inspired albums, and I was intensely bummed when they seemingly disbanded in 2004, opting instead to work on their respective solo projects. The long wait in between, however, has made their brilliant return even more exciting. Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink have come back full force with “Drawing Down the Moon,” their first full-length album since 2003’s “Hold On Love,” and arguably their finest.
While at their core Azure Ray is still most definitely a dream pop duo, they wear their numerous other influences on their sleeve: traditionally whispery vocals transform into strong, loud singing; sparse, dreamy arrangements transform into thick, multi-layered engagements; and an expansive set of instruments including various strings and woodwinds come together to build upon the twosome’s minimalistic trademark and flesh it out into a truly beautiful masterpiece of soft, tranquil melody.
There are a few songs on “Drawing Down the Moon,” such as “On and On Again,” “Dancing Ghosts,” and “Silver Sorrow” that are truly perfect examples of this maturation in Azure Ray’s songwriting. First of all, while the duo’s vocals have always sounded like a spectral ghost whispering into your ear as you lull into sleep, there’s just something about the singing on this record that takes that style and adds an element of strength and splendor unseen on their previous work, displaying the fact that these ladies can really sing without being showy and keeping it within the pacified volumes of the music, which in and of itself is an intensely developed and complete work.
Most of the songs start off with Azure Ray’s characteristic wistfully building sound, but become brightened and more impressively crafted as layers and layers of other masterfully executed playing from sources other than the standard piano and guitar of the genre sift softly in. “Make Your Heart” is a tune that makes great use of unconventional country-style acoustic guitar playing laid peacefully beneath dual-layered murmurs, and “Signs in the Leaves,” with its awesomely accurate title, makes me close my eyes and imagine a chilly autumn day as delicately played synth lines linger.
The standout song on the record is definitely the (surprisingly) closing track “Walking in Circles,” which utilizes some strongly classical guitar work and woodwind playing, and really strongly showcases Azure Ray’s vocal work, as it is the most powerful and stunning portion on the entire album. The song is short and peaceful, reflecting silvery folk-like phrasing and culminating in a faultless fashion the spirit and motif of “Drawing Down the Moon”. This is Azure Ray’s best work to date, maintaining staples of their yesteryears while expanding fruitfully on them. It will surely be a catalog centerpiece of longtime fans and new listeners alike.