Maria Taylor: 11:11

Maria Taylor: 11:11 (Saddle Creek)

A friend of mine who’s a very talented songwriter has this thing about the number 11. He says there’s something mystical about it, and the number’s been associated with some significant events in his life. He wrote a song back in the ’90s that featured the lyric, “11:11 sure sounds good.” It must have rubbed off on me, ’cause I started to see 11s everywhere. With curious frequency, I would happen to look up at the clock and see that it read 11:11. At home, at the office, in my car—the number was pervasive. By standard timekeeping, 11:11 is the only moment when all digits are the same. It’s unique. Can’t say whether there’s truly anything profound about it or not, but it seems to inspire contemplation, signalling unexpected possibilities or awareness of the curious symmetry that can take place in one’s life.

I can’t help wondering if Maria Taylor, half of the talented band Azure Ray, has had similar thoughts. After all, 11:11 is the title of her debut solo album. Taylor’s earned both devoted fans and critical acclaim with Azure Ray, along with creative wunderkind/boyfriend Conor Oberst. She probably didn’t have to make this album—hard to imagine she felt creatively stifled. But maybe it was just that need to let in some new possibilities, to pause her own creative clock for a moment. If so, she’s truly seized the moment. This ten-song platter is almost effortlessly pleasant.

The opening “Leap Year” seems to be about time itself; it’s built around a beguiling chord progression and Taylor’s alluringly soft voice, which gets under your skin quickly. There’s a hidden dimension to the tune that can’t really be explained, but clearly it’s Taylor dancing with her own muse. “Song Beneath the Song” is also about unseen depths: “Cryptic words meander/Now there’s a song beneath the song/They’ll learn, they’ll soon discern/Its true meaning,” sings Taylor on this very cool track, telling us over and over that “It’s not a love song.” Naw, that would be too easy.

Some tunes start simply with Taylor and her acoustic guitar, like “Two of Those Too” and “Nature Song,” but then add sonic layering, like the latter’s sweet harmonies and background orchestration. Taylor does that magical thing of putting vocals upfront and then singing with emotional delicacy. Her brand of subtle melancholy is hypnotic. On “One for the Shareholder,” the cool drum loop and shimmering string action are gripping. “There’s no burden that will agonize you/No worry that will weigh you down/Not the memories that hypnotize you/You won’t turn around/You can’t love me,” sings Taylor with casual intensity.

“Xanax,” the longest tune at six minutes, has a chiming acoustic groove which simulates a rapidly ticking clock. Unexpectedly, the guitars then take a plunge into lush Cocteau Twins territory; and Taylor just rides the waves of inspiration she’s clearly feeling wherever the (e)motion takes her. And the old-timey “Speak Easy” is a stylistic gem: a little standup bass, a little banjo, violin, and cello combine with her nostalgia-laced romanticism to complete the subtle sonic seduction Taylor promised at the disc’s start. Maria Taylor undoubtedly put a lot of work into this record, but it seems to just fly by effortlessly, one wistful tune after another. 11:11 sure sounds good, indeed.

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