With three potent, highly praised albums as Azure Ray, Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink built themselves a reputation for crafting mercilessly honest and hauntingly beautiful songs, and in the process managed to gather themselves a large and loyal fanbase. So it comes as no surprise that, after deciding to take an indefinite hiatus to explore other musical collaborations and solo projects, there is an almost palpable sense of expectation for the release of Drawing Down The Moon, their first new material in nearly seven years. Recorded at the Echo Mountain studios in Asheville, North Carolina, and helmed by longtime producer Eric Bachmann, Drawing Down The Moon shows an impressive depth and confidence in songwriting from a duo already more than able to turn a good phrase.
Named after a pagan ritual used to ‘draw down’ or invoke the spirit of the goddess, a process that is supposed to awaken the practitioner’s own inner spirit or power, Drawing Down The Moon appropriately seems to vibrate with a sense of dark mystery or even mysticism. For a band that has predominantly wallowed in dreamy ballads, their new effort is reliably familiar if perhaps a little more subdued. The music rises and swells, growing more complex at every turn, yet always tempered with a sense of grace. The result is an album that’s can’t fail to comfort, Taylor and Fink’s light and sweet voices just as heavenly and wonderfully harmonised, their lyrics just as lilting and reserved. Highlights include ’Shouldn’t Have Loved’, which gallops along to the whisked beat of an old folk tune of love and loss, and ‘In The Fog’, which sizzles to life with the sounds of static and staccato drums perfectly matched against the timbre of the the pair’s voices.
With all this in the album’s favour, it’s disappointing that, as a whole, Drawing Down The Moon just doesn’t seem to captivate with the same force as some of their previous work. The reason might be found in the instrumentation. Azure Ray have, from the start, often been described as ‘dream pop’, in large part because of the smokey, dreamlike quality of the vocals and soft-spoken delivery. But what always made their music work, made it come to life, was a constant and subtle juxtaposition of textures and tempos in the production of the music. Take, for example, ‘New Resolution’ from 2003’s Hold On Love. The major driving element in the song is a dark, crunchy synth line that perfectly underscores and contrasts their delicate voices. It was an oft used conceit, and one that worked well for them. On Drawing Down The Moon, however, the songs often lack that other, darker, contrasting note, and the result is an album that sometimes risks drowning in its own melancholic, mid-tempo ballads. To wit, it plays best on headphones but can become repetitive when in the mood for more variation.
[Saddle Creek; September 13, 2010]