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On Second Listen: Orenda Fink – Ask the Night

on January 26, 2010, 4:30pm

The evolution of a band is often a hit or miss venture. Either the band tries something new and it strikes just the perfect chord for its seasoned fans (e.g. Radiohead’s Kid A), or they lose hardcore fans but gain a more commercial audience (e.g. Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News), or it completely blows up in their face and they lose mostly everything but real hardcore fans (Metallica’s St. Anger).

As much as fans want a steady outcome of solid, similar hits, the evolution of a band’s music is inevitable. Groups age, get exposed to different sounds, become bored with the same routine, and may cycle through new members. It’s a gamble that most bands, if they are serious about their craft, will always take with fingers crossed and hopes high.

For Azure Ray co-lead singer Orenda Fink, she took the gamble and created a deadly combination of both striking a chord with fans and gaining commercial success with her new album Ask the Night. Her debut album, Invisible Ones, was a dark, tribal-drummed, and echoed voice affair, influenced, in part it seems, by a PJ Harvey-with-a-dash-of-The Breeders mixture. With Ask the Night, Alabama-born Fink returns home. She is more influenced by old folk gospel music than buzzing guitars. She has the same beautiful, echoed voice, but this time finger-plucked guitars, banjos, and mandolins accompany it. And it works quite well for her.

The opening track, “Why is the Night Sad”, is a soft, sad lullaby smooth enough to put even the most restless sleeper in a deep trance, but Fink’s vocal line pings with enough icy reverb to fit the melancholy lyrics like a glove. Album highlight “High Ground” follows with a challenge to a “big man” who has wronged Fink one too many times. The chorus uses an oncoming storm to explain her escape from heartbreak. “And there’s a rain comin’ down to the valley below/and I know just how they feel/Cause when the water rises they start to look for high ground/Just like me when you come around.” Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse supplies fantastic backing vocals that make the song sound similar to his one-off side project Ugly Casanova. As the song builds toward the coming of the rain, Brock provides a great twanging yelp echoing over the top of Fink’s chorus.

The tones and themes of the album contribute to the old folk sound with songs of love (lost or gained), weather, and whiskey. Middle track “Wind” is able to combine all three. Fink makes a whiskey-fueled choice to tell her love they should just go whichever way the wind may blow them. She lays it all out for him right at the start: “You should know by now all there is to know/About how this is going to go when the whiskey drops down my burning throat/The words come out. Let’s go.” With that, Fink says they should just stick their thumbs in the wind and see where it takes them.

The very next song, “Alabama”, shows where that wind has taken them. In another highlight, Fink sings a love song to her home state of Alabama. A place where the lord “hears you,” and “will take care of you,” if you just pack your bags and go there. Combined with later song, “Half-Light”, Fink sings of her home with great longing and comfort. Painting a picture of an idyllic, warm, southern evening with cicadas chirping, and “old songs” carried by the wind.

With her new folk awakening, Orenda Fink has found a sound that not only ties her in with fellow Saddle Creek folkster Conor Oberst, but also could put her on the front edge of new stardom. By softening her sound and embracing her roots, she has evolved her music and created a formula that will not only give her old fans something to cheer for, but also a whole new crop of ears for her to harvest.

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