Birmingham, Ala., has a surprisingly vibrant indie scene, with acts as diverse as 13ghosts, Delicate Cutters and Vulture Whale making inventive music that puts new spins on Southern rock and folk. So when Maria Taylor moved from Los Angeles back to her hometown, it wasn’t like she was moving into the middle of nowhere, just somewhere very different from the West Coast.
Overlook, her first album since returning to Birmingham, reflects those interests and benefits tremendously from the change of scenery. She reconnected with old friend/new neighbor Lester Nuby III of Verbena and Vulture Whale, who engineered Overlook and played drums and guitar. He’s almost a one-man backing band, although she also gets help from several other fellow Southerners, including her own brother, sister and father.
The result is an album that sounds more lived in and comfortable, in the music as well as in the songwriting. Transience is the prominent theme, and even as she settles down in Birmingham, Taylor pines for L.A.: “I don’t unpack my bags anymore / there’s always a suitcase full on the bedroom floor,” she sings on “Happenstance,” whose chorus evokes “this cold night in Alabama.” It’s a gorgeously slow-burn song, perfectly understated even in its contradictory images of “kudzu vines” and “powdery snow.”
Whether solo or as one half of Azure Ray, Taylor’s vocals and lyrics tend toward breezy and minimalist, to the point where her songs can sound a bit too atmospheric, blurring out around the edges as if heard from across a great distance. Overlook, however, is more insistent, more present in the moment, more engaging in its Southern melancholy. Taylor stretches herself on the jazzy “Bad Idea?” and the tense psych-rocker “Matador,” which makes this her most effortlessly diverse album as well.
Maybe it’s because Taylor is back in Alabama, or maybe it’s because she’s surrounded herself with simpatico musicians, or maybe moving cross-country has given her something new and urgent to write and sing about. Whatever the case, Overlook is her best, most animated collection in years.