Maria Taylor has built up a surprisingly extensive catalogue over the past fifteen years, as a solo artist and as one half of Azure Ray. Her latest album, the self-produced Overlook, arrives two years on from the organic yet commercial folk-pop of LadyLuck and less than a year after Azure Ray’s comeback, Drawing Down the Moon. Yet Taylor somehow still managed to fit in a period of writer’s block after moving back to her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama last year, out of which she emerged with the nine songs that make up this album. Accordingly, Overlook has the feel of a record that occasionally revels in a newfound creative spark but comes off rather more often sounding not quite fully-formed and sleepy.
As if to emphasise its flaw, Taylor has made the error of frontloading the album with its three best songs: ‘Masterplan’, ‘Matador’ and ‘Happenstance’. The first of these succeeds through a juxtaposition of Taylor’s plaintive vocal melody with the accompanying crashes of the propulsive, irregular drumming. Graced with lightly strummed guitars and atmospheric, reverbed harmonies, it slowly ups the tension before springing into life midway when the beats at last converge into a pattern and electric guitars arrive to bolster the sound. The ensuing ‘Matador’ retains the smart interplay and overlapping voices of ‘Masterplan’ but draws out into a surprising second half constructed around comparatively edgy electric guitar squalls and Tom Waits-esque marimba.
More typical of Taylor’s previous works, ‘Happenstance’ strips back the instrumentation to focus on the voice and lyric, and while it feels rather more like a sketch than a whole, finished song, Taylor’s performance is wonderfully understated and the multitracked hook of “On this cold night in Alabama” is one of the album’s most memorable refrains. At this point, however, things start to go awry as Taylor gradually finds her thread lost in a sea of bland and ineffectual songs.
The jaunty jazz/blues experiment ‘Bad Idea?’, with its nostalgic, playful Beatles-esque melody, is probably the pick of the bunch after this point. ‘Like It Does’ and ‘Idle Mind’ are pretty and pleasant enough but never wow, while the wispy ‘This Could Take A Lifetime’, which segues into the even more wispy yet somehow more alluring ‘Along For The Ride’, is hampered by the customary restraint of Taylor’s delivery. The instrumentation is uniformly strong, however, and the more forceful ‘In A Bad Way’ serves to break up some of the listlessness of the album’s second half.
As an album, Overlook is more acutely disappointing because it starts with such promise, the early songs signalling an artist in a mode of real creative inspiration. For it to lose some serious steam less than halfway through is a real shame as the impact of the opening trio is gradually but decisively outweighed by Taylor’s more nominal songs. Had she spent a little more time cultivating some stronger material to support ‘Masterplan’, ‘Matador’, and ‘Happenstance’, we could have been in for a treat.
[Affairs Of The Heart; August 12, 2011]