, September 20th, 2011 10:53
The statuesque features of Maria Taylor may be best recognisable to some as the ghostly female presence that has at various points lurked behind Conor Oberst in Bright Eyes. Taylor was probably most prominent in that band during their Cassadaga period, while her work with Orenda Fink as part of Azure Ray has produced a number of splendid records of hazy, sophisticated pop, a bit like a more grown-up, arguably slightly greyer version of CocoRosie.
Overlook is her fourth solo album, and her first since 2009's LadyLuck, an unfortunately awful collection of turgid ballads that seemed especially bad when compared with her previous album, 2007's Lynn Teeter Flower, a majestic LP that placed her in a vaguely similar songwriting lineage as Joni Mitchell or Cat Power, but with an attractive restraint and understatement that appeared again on Azure Ray's 2010 comeback record, Drawing Down The Moon.
At her peak, Taylor is a genuine poet capable of meaningful and moving art, with pretty much all of Lynn Teeter Flower and now a number of songs on Overlook exhibiting her imaginative and woozy method of exploring childhood, dreams, ambition and even things like family and culture. Overlook is not her best record, but is an encouraging return to a sensibility marked by deliberation and sensuousness in equal measure.
The problem with LadyLuck was that Taylor seems corny when her heart is worn so squarely on her sleeve. Her take on the confessional ballad ends up with cloying, hackneyed lyrics and a mildly adolescent take on romance that seems irrelevant to her truest musical identity. Taylor is best as an observer, as on the magnificent 'Matador' on Overlook, one of the finest songs of her career and one that showcases a relatively brash delivery that Taylor has only hinted at before. The other excellent moments on Overlook come when she becomes playful, such as on 'Bad Idea?'. Earnestness does not suit her so well, yet at the same time self-possession undoubtedly does.
Some hangovers from LadyLuck do persist, however, with 'Like It Does' and 'This Could Take A Lifetime', both fragile and insubstantial morsels of MOR gunk. Over the years Taylor has been sparing in how much of Azure Ray's more textured and busy sound she has incorporated into her solo work, and it must be said that when the more peculiar tendencies of that band do inform Taylor on her own, she becomes a more intriguing proposition – especially when she combines that with what appears to be a sound understanding of the History of Popular American Music in the 20th Century, her style gravitating towards show tunes one moment, the Appalachians the next.
Instrumentally and vocally, Taylor can be compared with Feist and perhaps Gillian Welch, but at her best she seems more controlled and unassuming than both. Taylor's brilliance – which, granted, is not always immediately visible and must sometimes be coaxed out by the listener – comes from her stark and witty impressions as a wallflower, rather than the outpourings from her artistic ego.