As a card-carrying member of the Saddle Creek Fan Club, I feel it is my responsibility to listen to everything they put out. Even if I don’t feel like I’m gonna like it very much. When I first listened to Maria Taylor’s group Azure Ray, I was sure I was going to hate it. As it turns out, they were/are a pretty good band. Burn and Shiver is a great record (though it came out before they signed with Saddle Creek), and their other albums are better than average. In 2004 they went on hiatus for a few years while Taylor and Orenda Fink made solo records, and then got back together in ’08 and released Drawing Down The Moon last year.
This is Taylor’s 4th solo album, and I’ll be damned if I can really tell the difference between her band work and solo work; besides the fact that her solo work isn’t as good. Very often a person so indentified by a band will break out with a solo record so vastly different from their band that it’s hard to imagine how the same person could be responsible. I’m not a fan of going that route, either. But making solo records that sound exactly like your band? It just seems lazy. I feel the same way about Brandon Flowers’ solo record, Flamingo, and I’m a huge Killers fan. It’s just too similar.
That isn’t to say there aren’t good aspects of Overlook. The songs are well-constructed and performed gracefully. Taylor’s voice is as delicate and vulnerable as ever, and she knows how to phrase a song to match her strengths. The guitar parts played by Browan Lollar, of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, are probably the best part of the album. He provides grittiness to an otherwise pristine canvas.
The major problem I find in Taylor’s work here is that there is nothing to hold on to. Everything is very surface-only, and there is zero emotion to resonate with the listener. Honestly, the word that keeps coming to my mind is trite. She’s basically just rehashing things she’s done before, and it’s insulting to her talent as a writer and performer. Lyrically and musically she’s been better than this many times, and I hate to see someone who just last year helped put out a really decent record be so bland.
I’m not saying Overlook is terrible, but I am saying it’s boring. If you’re actively listening to it you’re wasting your time. You will not be rewarded. Now, in another way the album is good for background noise. It’s kinda like listening to Delilah After Dark on the radio, minus the annoying Delilah talking parts (though in this case that might actually good for breaking up the monotony).
There are two tracks out of the nine that I think are pretty good. The first is “In A Bad Way”, which features the most bluesy riffs delivered by Lollar. Were it an instrumental, it would be fantastic. The other song is “Bad Idea?,” which is kind of Parisian-folky. It would fit in perfectly in a Woody Allen film, or on a Madeleine Peyroux record. The only thing I don’t like about this song is the backing vocals, which turn a perfectly good song into a schmaltz-fest that gets annoying upon repeat listens.
It is my sincere hope that Taylor teams up with Fink again soon, and they put together another good Azure Ray album. As a solo artist Taylor seems lost and needs something from Fink. I don’t know what it is, but she obvioulsy can’t create at the same level without her bandmate.