Inevitably there are going to be more COVID albums than any one person will be able to keep track of the deeper we get into this mess. Hell, the entirety of The Jewel Garden so far may as well fall under that umbrella. Ashley Paul, like so many of us, used music as a crutch for these long isolated months. Old favorites became new balms and eventually a new album for the trio of Yoni Silver, Otto Willberg, and herself emerged. Recorded over lockdown using a variety of remote techniques, Ray is an obscure, strange and wonderful beacon.
Sparse compositions of alto saxophone, clarinet, and bass mingle with Paul’s skewed – often layered – vocals. Her voice adds a rawness to the soft earthiness of the instrumentation. The interaction of all this creates a fragile, organically strange world; a mirror of her current experience and chisel deeply into my own reality. Stuck in the grass but dreaming, “Blue Skies Green Trees” rides solemn layers of sax and clarinet while Paul promises to ‘try harder.’ Swinging gently through barely-there rhythms, it’s a lackadaisical afternoon in the garden during end times. Dichotomies are stitched through Ray, giving it understated power.
Paul has always made music that sounds like nothing else, often mixing playful elements with serious chops. Challenging at times, these songs are a reminder that even in extreme periods, there aren’t many absolutes in the world. Even in the darkness, there can be fun, there can be joy; the trick, as ever, is to balance all these extremes for our own sanity and those we hold close. Is it easy? Never.
“Pick me up from the floor. I’ve got no will anymore,” Paul begs in the opening lines of “Choices,” a hymn to languishing away and feeling lost as the world burns. “I’m drowning in you” are words that stick straight into the deepest, most guarded piece of myself. Silhouettes of normalcy creep in throughout Ray, but this album is verily of this time. Masks can cover the scars and tears, and for a time that’s just about enough, but the real humanity in Ray is what sticks with me well after it’s gone silent.