“We can change our minds 100,000 times,” sings Maria Taylor on her latest album LadyLuck, and it’s tempting to think she could be addressing her former bandmate Orenda Fink, who, with O+S, is on her third musical outlet since Azure Ray disbanded in 2004. Taylor isn’t, in case you were wondering; LadyLuck almost wholly concerns her relationship split with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and her subsequent move to Los Angeles. While last year’s Savannah Drive EP with Andy LeMaster offered an acoustic preview of Taylor’s new mindset, what we have here is a reversal of her usual formula: sad lyrics mostly delivered with a sunny outlook instead of vice versa. Much of the production, too, is lighter and more organic, lifting the veil on her creamy alto. Taylor is more exposed than ever.
Where it works, LadyLuck holds its lyrical candour in perfect balance with its verdant musical backdrop of strings and woodwind, acoustic guitars, mellotron and organs, creating some of the most touching and strangely energising work of Taylor’s solo career to date. The opening pair of ‘LadyLuck’ and ‘Time Lapse Lifeline’ is undeniably strong; Nate Walcott’s dancing woodwind arrangement on the former gives the song a swooning feel, while the latter’s meaty rhythm section and dramatic strings have that sweet pop immediacy often missing from Taylor’s albums. It’s so instantly enjoyable that lines like “Seven years combined / it’s just the flicker of a neon sign,” only really hit you on the fourth or fifth listen.
Later, ‘My Favorite… Love’ comes across as a dead ringer for the kind of moody ballad that producer Mike Mogis wrung out of Rachael Yamagata on Elephants… (which, incidentally, featured a Taylor backing vocals cameo), while the jaunty ballad of acceptance ‘Cartoons & Forever Plans’ closes the album on its strangest and most hopeful note, bolstered by a winning turn from Michael Stipe on harmonies. ‘Orchids’, too, is pretty lovely. An example of LadyLuck‘s most poetic and reflective writing, ‘Orchids’ casts an honest light on her deeply felt compassion with an uncluttered airiness that prevents the emotion from becoming too stifling.
Taylor might have the edge in big-name pals but O+S finds Fink teaming up with ex-Remy Zero bassist Cedric LeMoyne, an old friend from her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. LeMoyne, who has previously toured with Alanis Morissette, now goes under the moniker of Scalpelist, and certainly lives up to it with all the cutting and splicing required to create these ten songs. Modestly starting out as an art residency at the Bemis Center of Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska, the project took on a life of its own, sending Fink back to Haiti – the source of inspiration for much of her 2005 solo debut Invisible Ones – via Alabama in search of sounds to sample.
Taking inspiration from classic-era 4AD and David Lynch soundtracks, among other things, O+S sets the dial to dream-pop and teases various spectres of sound out from the gloaming. LeMoyne employs some beautiful and unexpected juxtaposition to keep us guessing; the piano that drops in and out of the otherwise punchy ‘Permanent Scar’, for instance, feels almost like a spirit visitation and is made all the more eerie by a strange squawking sample that departs just as suddenly as it arrived. Likewise, it’s hard to avoid such portentous talk when faced with songs like ‘Survive Love’ and ‘Haunts’.
Elsewhere, ‘Toreador’ is an unusual, hypnotic ballad built on a sturdy foundation of drums, piano and cymbal crashes, dressed up with gorgeous vocals (both front and back), various crackles and pops, and, faintly, what sounds like a rowdy male chant. ‘We Do What We Want To’ is much more direct, with powerful staccato synths and swirling effects reminiscent of current dream-pop poster-people School Of Seven Bells, while ‘Knowing Animals’ rages and spooks in equal measure like an outtake from Portishead’s Third.
It doesn’t all gel quite so brilliantly. The blandly titled ‘My Friend’ represents an unfortunate stumble, and closer ‘Lonely Ghosts’ doesn’t quite work, but the hit rate is impressive. Whereas Maria Taylor on LadyLuck too often settles for songs that are merely pretty rather than engrossing, O+S rarely come up short of immersive. With Taylor and Fink now living close together in LA, there are tentative plans to extend last December’s brief live reunion of Azure Ray into a full album, but Fink already has a second solo album ready to fly before that happens, and with their striking debut, O+S have the chance to keep her busy for some months yet.
[Nettwerk; April 20, 2009 / Saddle Creek; September 7, 2009]