Azure Ray dials up promising return on ‘Waves’ EP

Azure Ray

In pure chronology, Azure Ray is almost 20 years old. But it’s more accurate to describe the dream pop project of Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink –born in Athens, Georgia in 2001 — in multiple chapters. Call them After Death and Second Life.

After all, the band was born from death in the first place. The unexpected death of Taylor’s boyfriend was a true gut punch, leaving both reeling. Songwriting provided a cathartic way to cope, and it turned out the songs were pretty good – the band found an immediate audience and was picked up by Omaha-based indie institution Saddle Creek Records. They soon moved to Nebraska themselves and spent four years, three full-lengths, and a handful of singles and EPs exploring a melancholy, blurry, lightly electronic, and slightly folky brand of dream pop.

Their first chapter came to an end in 2004, when the band chose to disband to pursue solo projects. But there was a resurrection in the works – circumstance sparked a reunion show at the Troubadour in 2008. Flame rekindled, Azure Ray evolved their sound further to produce two electro pop-leaning LPs, the last of which surfaced in 2012. It seemed a fruitful period, if not as prolific as their initial four-year run – the albums were well-received, and tours were successful. But after a few shows in 2013, activity ground to a halt. Their second act appeared to have come to a close.

The band may have remained dormant longer if not for an intrusion from the past – a heavy box covered in “magnetic media” stickers that arrived in the mail. Inside the box were the master tapes for Azure Ray’s first, self-titled album – something that neither member had thought about for years. Opening the box of tape reels awakened a surprisingly profound nostalgia in Taylor and Fink – memories of being “…barely 20, in [their] tiny, messy apartment in Athens, GA trying to cope [with loss].” The two had periodically broached the subject of trying to write again, but that plain cardboard box spurred things forward with a greater intensity. Suddenly, being a band again felt necessary. A sold-out reunion show at Los Angeles’ Lodge Room this January was an undeniable success and sealed the deal – it was time to make a new record.

Waves, out on October 25 on Taylor’s own Flower Moon Records, is nothing if not backward-looking – fitting for a record that owes its very existence to the insistent pull of the past. Its five songs – two originals, a cover, one reworking of an existing Azure Ray song, and a reprise of an original – explore the variety of changes brought on by the passage of time.

The two originals – “Palindrome” and “Last Summer in Omaha” – are welcome additions to the band’s catalog. The former stands with some of Azure Ray’s best songs, touching on all eras of their sound: it’s built around a backwards loop that immediately hearkens back to first song on first album (and Taylor Swift mixtape-for-recently-dumped-fan inclusion), “Sleep”. Intentional or not, it feels a bit like running into an old friend, and sets the tone for EP.

The electronic textures of 2010’s Drawing Down the Moon and 2012’s As Above So Below are here on both songs, but less overt. “Palindrome” is marked by soft, flickering drums that recall the rich, miniaturized textures of Vespertine-era Björk, while “Last Summer in Omaha” feels a bit woozy, with a trip-hop drum beat and hints of Imogen Heap. Both songs use strings to great effect, and other sonic touches are carefully considered – there’s some softly strummed electric guitar; a little piano; what sounds like bells or glockenspiel on “Palindrome”. All of these elements are woven into a rich tapestry of sound, tied together with Taylor and Fink’s beautiful harmonies.

Unfortunately, the cover of fellow Athens band R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming” breaks the lovely spell of the first two tracks. The song may fit Waves thematically – the original’s nocturnal, achingly nostalgic balladry has deep roots in long-gone Athenian summer nights – but Azure Ray’s version is completely unnecessary. It feels self-conscious, like the band felt the tone of the original was too obvious. They deserve credit for taking a risk, but by attempting to distance themselves from the feeling of the source material – with nothing more than drums, bass, and some shuffling electronic percussion – the band falls flat. Nothing is gained; what seems a natural match of material instead ends up extremely disappointing.

Luckily, the most literal dredging of the past on Waves redeems the misstep before it. The band revisits “Hold On Love”, from the 2003 album of the same name. The original is a mix of vibes, soft electric guitar, sleepy vocals, and electronic drum sounds – it feels a bit like “Dream Baby Dream” for kids obsessed with The Blue Nile and not 1950s doo-wop. “Hold On Love (2018)” finds kinship in the original’s empty spaces, but this time explores them by way of Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session. It’s dreamy, acoustic, and almost countryfied – a doubling-down on Azure Ray’s folk elements that gives new life to what could have been a pointless exercise. It takes an already great song and finds new greatness in it, imbued with fresh perspective brought on by the passage of time.

Waves ends with “Palindrome (Reprise)”. At less than a minute long, it feels a bit extraneous, though it isn’t without its charms. It serves as a reminder – although maybe a bit heavy-handed – of the record’s overarching mood, tapping into the languid, regret-tinged loveliness of the opening track. “If I could love you better / If we could see what we’ve become / Walking around like strangers / In our love-song palindrome” sing Taylor and Fink, in perfect harmony. It’s a nice footnote and nothing more.

If this is the beginning of the band’s third chapter, it is a promising one. Circumstances may have changed – demoing songs over email and Facetime is decidedly un-2001. But Waves is a reminder that, even as decades pass, some things are constants. The need to make music as Azure Ray brings, and will continue to bring, Taylor and Fink together – by revisiting their past, they seem to acknowledge they can simultaneously long for and wave goodbye to it.

The mood may remain hazy, but the band exists sharply in the present, taking stock of and coming to grips with the past without being mired in its fog. Waves is a lovely listen that is ultimately of far more importance to its creators than their fans. But it will resonate for listeners, too – as a reminder of what Azure Ray have done, and what they may continue to do. Whatever the band’s next chapter may be, here’s hoping it’s long and fertile.

Words by Andrew Ledford