The shadow of death

The relentless sting of losing a collaborator, or a frail-minded producer, or the destruction of an entire country yields no mercy. Distance does nothing to numb the trauma: The psychological effects of tragedies on mental health ripple across raging oceans and hazy skies. Orenda Fink — half of indie-folk duo Azure Ray — knows this anguish all too well.

"My eye started going crazy and really started twitching and completely trying to close itself," says Fink. "I had to go to a neurologist and all this crazy stuff and they said it was probably anxiety. It was really scary."

Fink and Maria Taylor, the other half of the nearly decade-old partnership, were preparing to record their latest album, Drawing Down the Moon (their first in almost seven years), when a massive earthquake devastated Haiti, and the hearts of the rest of the world, in January. Dealing with "the possible death of many friends in `a` country that was in complete ruin" was possible for the soft-spoken Fink to withstand, but when combined with the death of friend and Remy Zero drummer Gregory Slay just a couple weeks earlier, Fink's strength withered.

The eerie, beautiful vocals of Fink and Taylor echo the death that's buried in Draw-ing Down the Moon. The entrancing album — their most powerfully mature yet — is not only haunted by lyrics of heartbreak and disturbing loss, but also, Fink hesitantly reveals, by the tragic suicide of Azure Ray's would-be producer, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. Although Azure Ray ultimately decided to work with their longtime producer, Eric Bachmann, the weight of Linkous' passing undeniably crept into the darkness of the album.

"There's a lot of death around this record `that` I didn't realize until I started talking about it," says Fink.

Unintended or not, Fink's songwriting on the record speaks to its funereal surroundings. The chillingly morbid "Larraine" merges ominous acoustic sounds with mournful vocal vibrations. The woodsy isolation of a single violin wisps through the middle of the track, disappears, and then reemerges. (Fink affirms that the whispered lyrics — "But when you cut the lines / they put you away" — refer to her mother.)

Azure Ray's three previous full-length albums (a 2001 self-titled disc, 2002's Burn and Shiver and 2003's Hold on Love) have not approached the strength and maturity that songs like "Silver Sorrow" and "Love and Permanence" do on their most recent work. Moon's ambitious track, "Shouldn't Have Loved," pulsates with dark country sounds of regret and Auto-Tuned breaks that shadow the repeated line, "I shouldn't have loved you that way" as it races toward its ethereal ending.

Paralleling their newfound sonic fortitude, Fink and Taylor have found comfort in the sudden surety of their commitment to one another. Where uncertainty once blanketed young Azure Ray's opinion about their future, leaving listeners hanging for years, today Fink speaks with confidence — at least as much as she ever has — about their future.

"We want to do a tour in Europe, and then we'd like to do another U.S. tour after that," she says. "We have a couple of other side projects that we'd like to honor, so we might do those and then maybe come back together for a record."

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