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A tale of two cities

Azure Ray's ephemeral dream-pop blurs the Athens-Omaha border


Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor of Azure Ray would seem the very models of indie-rock royalty. They spent part of their formative creative years kicking around the fertile fields of Athens. They currently lay their hats in Omaha, Neb., the hotbed of musical talent du jour. They've got two crown princes of college radio playlists -- Omaha scene lynchpin Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and former Archers of Loaf maestro Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers) -- on their speed-dial. For added luster, they've even hobnobbed with international techno-pop megastar Moby (appearing on a track from his 2002 album, 18). But despite their connections and impressive resumes -- which also include Athens band Now It's Overhead and the defunct Birmingham/Athens alt-rock combo Little Red Rocket -- the joined-at-the-hip duo sits removed from any of the musical associations their current and former stomping grounds might elicit.

As Azure Ray, Fink and Taylor create the kind of laid-back, atmospheric records -- 2002's EP, November, and 2003's full-length, Hold On Love (on Omaha label Saddle Creek) -- that send reviewers scrambling for synonyms of "ethereal" and "gossamer." Their Georgia pedigrees aside, these two female singer/songwriters won't remind anyone of Emily Saliers or Amy Ray -- unless you've been to that alternate universe where the Indigo Girls were more influenced by the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine than by Joni Mitchell.

Nor does their music fit neatly alongside Omaha acts: Their breathy vocals, understated melodies and alternately muted and lush instrumentation create a gauzy artistry at odds with the manic, obsessive rock stylings of Cursive, the slick synth-pop of the Faint and the wide-open spaces of Bright Eyes.

That isn't necessarily a problem, of course: Fans of the scenes in both towns are, for the most part, an expansive, literate and open-minded bunch. And Hold On Love is exactly the kind of album to make people sit up and take notice. It's a more expansive record than its predecessors, possessed of a fuller, more polished sound.

"I think the songs we were writing just thematically lent themselves toward that anyway," Fink says. "Maria and I write separately, so most of the time we don't even know what the other person is doing until we're putting the record together. When we played songs for this record, we realized that the songs fit together, and that they were about transition. We realized this was going to be different from what we've done in the past, and we changed things accordingly."

True enough, the theme of transition echoes through the album, from the New Age funk of "New Resolution" ("Move on/ Move on/ ... Don't undermine/My new resolution/Just to find/A different light, a new direction") to the elegiac, piano-driven "Across the Ocean" ("Just give me some kind of sign/Is this the right place or the right time?/Now I've landed in the Midwest"). But the disc's real evolutionary momentum comes not from the lyrics, but from a complementary sense of musical self-assurance.

"This was the first album we'd done completely in a studio," Fink says, "so we had a lot more stuff available to us. Everything else we'd recorded, we'd done using ProTools in our house. We had a lot more time and a lot more resources to make a record like that, and we just wanted to have fun with it."

As Fink admits, the record also owes a creative debt to the behind-the-boards contributions of Bachmann and Athens producer Andy LeMaster, both longtime collaborators with the pair. It's through LeMaster, in fact, that Fink and Taylor came to leave Athens for Omaha: LeMaster, whose band Now It's Overhead counts the Azure ladies as members, has long served as the Omaha scene's East Coast delegation. He's known Oberst, that city's celebrated wunderkind, since the two were teenagers and has served as one of the few constants in the ever-revolving Bright Eyes lineup. Through that association, Azure Ray's first-ever tour found it opening for the indie mainstay.

Thus was a deep and abiding relationship formed between Azure Ray and Omaha: Taylor has toured as a drummer with Bright Eyes, and indie-rock rumor circles have romantically linked Fink to the Faint's Todd Baechle. So a move to Nebraska seemed a logical step.

The longtime friends' move has only strengthened the bond between Athens and Omaha, and lends itself to an interesting parlor game you might call Six Degrees of Orenda and Maria (connecting everyone from Moby and Bright Eyes to the Drive-By Truckers and Bob Mould). To hear Fink tell it, though, that game of connect-the-dots may be the biggest noticeable result of the migration, at least so far.

"The sad thing is that we really haven't done that much settling in," she says. "It's kind of sad. We've hardly been home ever since we moved there, a little over a year ago." In fact, she says, "I think Maria's thinking about moving back South again, to get closer to her family and some warmer weather."

If Taylor were to leave Fink in Omaha, it would mark a significant turning point in the twosome's personal and professional relationship. Since they met in art school, the two have been inseparable, and have spoken often about their simpatico sensibilities. The two first came to some prominence in the Birmingham, Ala., quartet, Little Red Rocket (Remy Zero, another Birmingham band, was an early booster). A deal with Geffen Records materialized, and just as quickly vanished. But that was incidental compared to the creative awakening the pair found itself undergoing.

After relocating Little Red Rocket to Athens, Fink and Taylor began to explore new musical territory. "We knew in our hearts we weren't writing rock songs," Fink says. The two did a couple of acoustic shows and, when they got an offer from Athens-based Warm Records, Little Red Rocket was grounded. Azure Ray has been plugging away ever since. And while the two have occasionally taken professional time apart -- Fink has played in the Athens instrumental combo Japancakes, and Taylor has toured with other groups -- "so far, there hasn't been any great, conscious need to separate," Fink says.

For now, there's little hope of getting away from each other, even if they wanted. There's the current tour with Bachmann's outfit Crooked Fingers. Fink and Taylor are doing double duty, co-headlining as Azure Ray as well as backing up Bachmann. ("It's really refreshing, not to have to put ourselves on the line, just having fun playing," she says. "We love that.") And the release of Hold On Love has unleashed the usual flurry of promotional activity, which keeps the band too busy to focus on much more than the here and now.

"We went to New York for a week to do press and a show," Fink says, running down the duo's recent schedule. "And as soon as we got back, we went to L.A. to do a video and rehearse for Crooked Fingers. Then we went to Europe for two weeks -- we were home for one day. Then we left yesterday for this five-week tour. Then it's back in Europe this January for another four weeks. Sometimes I'm like, 'When am I ever going to be at home and hang out with my boyfriend?'"

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