On her fourth proper solo album, Overlook, Maria Taylor proves that you not only can go home again, but it is often a good idea to seek out the familiar comforts that lie there. Although Taylor is a Birmingham, AL native, she has been better associated with music scenes in Athens, GA and Nebraska since her early career in Little Red Rocket, a band she formed with schoolmate Orenda Fink.
After Little Red Rocket fizzled out, Taylor and Fink went to Athens where they formed Azure Ray and played with other bands on that scene. A few years later, indie darling Conor Oberst encouraged them to move to Nebraska where they both became part of the Saddle Creek music collective. Azure Ray made music for Saddle Creek while both Taylor and Fink played and sung on other Saddle Creek releases. Soon, both women were making solo records on Saddle Creek as Azure Ray went on hiatus.
Last year, Azure Ray released its first album in 6 years, and that must have spurred something inside of Taylor. Azure Ray brought back Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers to produce them as he had on all their previous records. Drawing Down The Moon was released to much acclaim.
With Overlook, Taylor produces herself for the first time and she recorded all the tracks at Birmingham's Ol' Elegante studio, which serves as the unofficial clubhouse of Vulture Whale. Taylor's choice turned out to be inspired as Overlook emerges as her best record to date.
Azure Ray has been defined by its beautiful and ethreal sound. Much of that gauzy sound continued to infuse Taylor's own solo albums up to Overlook. While Overlook doesn't radically change Taylor's sound, it does bring an immediacy and visceral quality to her music that has rarely been heard before. The music is still gourgeous, but now this new sound makes it more approachable, more real.
Starting with the first track "Masterplan", Taylor allows Les Nuby of Vulture to let his powerful drumming hold court. As a guitarist/drummer, Nuby brings a special sensibility to his drumming. For those used to click tracks and drum machines, Nuby shows the difference that natural drumming can make. The song is edgy and exciting. The excitement continues on "Matador" with more driving drums from Nuby and strong guitar from Browan Lollar.
When Taylor finally slows things down on "Happenstance", she offers this fragile and soulful gem. As the chorus sings "on this cold night in Alabama" one can almost see the frost on Taylor's breath. "Like It Does" follows and keeps up the soul sounds of the previous track but in a more conventional way with organ and electric piano sounding like something out of Muscle Shoals in the early 70s.
One of the amazing things about Overlook is the fact that Taylor plays most all of the instruments on several of the tracks. Acting like a true and effective producer/artist she utilizes her guests without letting them overtake her own creative voice. Nearly on her own, she achieves quiet folk ("Idle Mind" "This Could Last A Lifetime") to sultry blues ("In A Bad Way") to shiny California 70s pop ("Along For The Ride").
Maria Taylor has spent a career as a bandmate or a supporting musician. Overlook feels like it is the first time she has been creatively selfish. Considering the amazing results, one can only hope that she continues this sensibility moving forward.
- Jim Markel