Ashley Paul, "Ray"
I am not sure which is more impressive: that Ashley Paul managed to compose a focused, inventive, and challenging album like this while living with a toddler or that she somehow managed to (remotely) form a tight new trio of like-minded collaborators during a pandemic lockdown. Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about the latter development, as the fragility and uneasy intimacy of Paul's past work has always been one of its more endearing aspects, but her instincts thankfully proved to be characteristically unerring, as Ray continues her recent streak of great albums. In fact, this is probably an ideal entry point to Paul's singular aesthetic, as it beautifully balances her more "broken" and discordant tendencies with an increased warmth, as well as a side that approximates a hallucinatory cabaret as envisioned by the Quay Brothers. It all works wonderfully, as this more varied approach yields some instant career highlights while sacrificing none of the precarious magic that made her work so unique and mesmerizing in the first place.
Any doubts I had about a trio potentially diluting the eerie beauty of Paul's art were immediately erased by the opening "Star Over Sand," which makes me feel like I just stumbled into a jazz club in a nightmarish inversion of the Muppet universe. It is quite a impressive feat, as the piece somehow manages to be fun, catchy, and propulsive while also sounding artfully strangled, clattering, and ramshackle. Later, "Light Inside My Skin" hits similar heights, as the intertwining sax and clarinet melodies, plinking and lurching groove, and Paul's vocals combine to approximate a sultry jazz chanteuse performance that would be right at home in Twin Peaks. Notably, I was taken aback when I realized that Paul's new bandmates were actually a clarinetist (Yoni Silver) and a bassist (Otto Willberg), as I was absolutely certain that she had recruited a killer drummer instead. As it turns out, Paul herself was the killer drummer, which bodes very well for future albums, as the unusual percussion is probably my favorite of Ray's new innovations. That said, Paul is still quite a compelling presence with even the most minimal backing, as evidenced by the languorous, tender beauty of "Choices." I also like the similarly intimate and slow-moving "Blue Skies Green Trees" quite a lot, yet Paul's vision alone would be spellbinding enough without any stand-out songs, as she occupies a truly fascinating nexus where emotional directness, fragility, strong songwriting, childlike creepiness, stellar musicianship, and radical harmonic and melodic sensibilities not only intertwine, but somehow feel perfectly natural and unforced together. No one but Ashley Paul could have envisioned and successfully executed an album like this one, but Willberg and Silver certainly ground and flesh out her aesthetic quite nicely. This trio format turned out to be quite a fine idea.
Samples can be found here.