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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Image: Flower Moon Records

20 years later, Azure Ray’s crushing debut reminds us that we’re never alone

Image: Flower Moon Records
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

It can take years, if not decades, for the saddest songs to reveal themselves as such. The symphonies of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Type O Negative’s thundering doom, the cracked and withering voice carrying Johnny Cash’s America recordings—biography and context inflame their impact. Their sadness radiates over time. Death, after all, has a way of transforming music—just look at Blackstar. But it can also inspire. There’s Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell and Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me, albums spawned by loss that one imagines will only wring more tears as more years pass. And then there’s Azure Ray’s self-titled debut, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary with a vinyl repressing. Its sadness, born in part from the sudden death of singer Maria Taylor’s boyfriend, remains potent, but the intervening years have only highlighted the strength wrapped up in its tears, the unshakable bond that binds the band.

Azure Ray is Taylor and Orenda Fink, singers and multi-instrumentalists whose friendship dates back to high school. “We taught ourselves how to how to play,” Fink tells The A.V. Club on a call with herself and Taylor. “I showed Maria some stuff on my guitar. She taught me how to sing. And we started figuring out what our style was together. We became obsessed with playing with each other. It’s all we wanted to do—” But Taylor cuts her off with a laugh, noting that saying they were obsessed with “playing with” each other “sounds bad.” They collapse into giggles. The ease with which they intertwine is evident, even over the phone. They’re as close now as they were as teenagers, and Fink’s recent move to the California desert has brought them even closer.

Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor
Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor
Photo: Flower Moon Records

“Maria and I are only a couple hours apart for the first time in probably seven or eight years,” Fink says. The duo also confirm that the move has resulted in what will be Azure Ray’s fifth album; they say they’re about three-quarters of the way through recording. “Whenever we’re in the same city we’re just, like, ‘Well, time to put out a new record,’” says Taylor.

“We could be friends and never make music, but we figure if we’re going to be hanging out, then we should be working,” Fink says. “It does have a lot to do with proximity, because the music is so much based on our relationship. That connection is what makes us want to do Azure Ray. It’s always been based on that.”

Azure Ray was born out of a mutual need between the friends. While driving back from a show with their previous band, Little Red Rocket, Taylor’s boyfriend at the time overdosed in the back of their tour van. “We thought he was asleep,” she recalls. The band split soon after. “We just couldn’t go back to those songs, we couldn’t go back to that van, we couldn’t go back to that part of our lives. From that day on, everything changed.”

Taylor’s loss coincided with one of Fink’s own. “We both went through different situations where we had our hearts destroyed for the first time,” Fink told The L.A. Times in 2002. The songs they began writing—hushed and tender compared to the rowdy pop of Little Red Rocket—were never meant to be released publicly. But, after debuting them at a memorial show, they linked up with producer (and Archers Of Loaf/Crooked Fingers frontman) Eric Bachmann via Brian Causey’s Warm Electronic Recordings.

Bachmann, who Taylor and Fink consider Azure Ray’s unofficial third member, forged a shimmering, sepia-toned soundscape around their folk arrangements, one humming with pealing strings, tape loops, ambient hiss, and lap steel. Taylor and Fink’s lullaby vocals surface like steam above it all, often resonating like the gasping farewells of some tragic heroine. But their voices pale elsewhere, exuding a weariness that, at times, borders on catatonic. And it’s those moments, the ones where the stillness between notes is most felt, that the album is most effective.

What Azure Ray captures that so many others miss is a numbness: that stage of depression when the mind is so strewn with fog that no emotion, happy or sad, can penetrate. There’s no anger in these songs, nor is there agony—there is just holding on. “Look how low I’ve sunk / Don’t ask me to rise” goes the near-whispered chorus of “Rise.” On “Sleep,” there’s only the act of staying still, of being strung between states of consciousness: “Fill these spaces up with days… in my room, you can go, you can stay.” There are perhaps no songs better suited for comatose spells of sadness —just ask Taylor Swift.

And that sense of unmoving, of slowing so time will inevitably slow with you, extends to the album’s themes of impermanence. Waves wash away words in the sand on “Don’t Make A Sound,” and a dizzy memory of “holding hands looking up at the sky” crumbles into a discordant clang of lap steel on “4th Of July,” a dream undone. Throughout, Fink and Taylor buck against the reality that love is never stronger than it is in the face of loss, and that the intensity of their feelings will inevitably fade. “Fever, I know you’ve come to take my love / Go away,” warns “Fever.” The album culminates with “How Will You Survive?”, in which Fink and Taylor ask that very question. What else is lost when mourning ends?

But the mourning will end, and the songwriters’ grasp on this knowledge is what ensures Azure Ray never overwhelms in its melancholy. Fink and Taylor aren’t despondent or doom-laden—and most importantly, they’re not alone. “She’s my friend of all friends / She’s still here when everybody’s gone,” Taylor sings on “Displaced,” a remarkable and deeply affecting ode to what gets us through nights that never end. “She doesn’t have to say a thing / We’ll just keep laughing all night long.” Listen to how their voices braid as “Safe And Sound” eases into its chorus, dovetailing to “take away the pain.” Their effortless harmonies may as well double as reinforcements, affirmations of intimacy.

That dynamic perseveres on their follow-ups, which include the sumptuous pop of 2003’s Hold On Love and 2010’s sparkling, bright-eyed Drawing Down The Moon, among other releases, though their spirits have undoubtedly lifted over the years. “I don’t want to get into the thing where we have to play only sad music and conjure up those emotions,” Fink said following the release of 2002’s absorbing Burn And Shiver. “It will be changing.”

Now, revisiting the album 20 years later for its new reissue this month, Fink and Taylor say they’re still affected by the songs, even if they don’t fully recognize the people who made them. “It’s almost like it was a different person who wrote [them],” Fink says. “But I feel for that person. You know, like it’s a close friend.”

“I feel the same way,” Taylor adds before slipping into a laugh. “We even just sound so different. I was listening to it and our voices sound like chipmunks.”

People change, years pass, trends rewrite themselves and circle back again, but Fink and Taylor remains steadfast in their union. “We’ve taken little hiatuses,” Taylor says, “but we always come back to this because it’s always been about our friendship. That will go on forever.”

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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