Thursday, September 6, 2007

Mazzy Star

Though Mazzy Star have managed the neat trick of updating psychedelia for the 1990s without sounding dated, if you're looking for blissed-out music with a happy smile on its face, you might want to think twice before taking the plunge.
When guitarist David Roback wraps his shards of feedback and drawn-out crescendos of reverb and distortion around Hope Sandoval's laconic vocal delivery, the results can indeed be trance-inducing. But their music is as much a disengagement from real life as an investigation of alternate realities, and the druggy states they evoke are comfortably numb rather than euphoric.

Mazzy Star's roots in the California Paisley Underground movement of the 1980s are deep. Roback, along with his brother Steve, was one of the main architects of leading LA psychedelic revival band, the Rain Parade. Leaving that band after their first LP, he founded the dreamier Opal in the mid-1980s with ex- Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith. Opal's quasi-psychedelic ruminations, with their guitar drones and hints of blues and folk, weren't far off the map that Mazzy Star would follow, and indeed Roback met Sandoval through Smith, who was a friend of Hope's.
Sandoval, still in high school at the time, was playing in a duo called Going Home with Sylvia Gomez; Kendra was impressed enough to make a tape of their music and pass it on to Roback, who produced a still-unreleased album by the pair.

When Smith left Opal under cloudy circumstances in the middle of an American tour with The Jesus & Mary Chain, Sandoval was tapped as her replacement. After that tour and a jaunt through Europe were completed, Opal disbanded, and Roback and Sandoval decided to continue collaborating in Mazzy Star.
Though theoretically a full band, Mazzy Star is very much Roback and Sandoval's show. They write all of the material, and although other musicians (including ex-Clay Allison drummer Keith Mitchell) are given minimal credits (no instruments are listed) on their albums, their backing players remain virtually anonymous to the public.

Their 1990 debut on Rough Trade, She Hangs Brightly, was a post-punk take on the kind of dark, long-winded psychedelia practised by The Doors on "The End", as well as the hypnotic massive guitar drone woven by The Velvet Underground on "What Goes On". That's only about half of Mazzy Star's world, though; most of the rest of their material is devoted to dusty, haunting acoustic-flavoured ballads with heavy blues and folk elements, often giving Roback a chance to stretch his chops on slide guitar. Sandoval's detached, sing-speak vocals betray a bit of a country-folk twang, but are seemingly less concerned with piloting the songs than reflecting their fuzzy, sedate states of free association.

The American branch of Rough Trade folded in 1991, but Mazzy Star's contract was picked up by Capitol, who re-issued the first album and put out the follow-up, So Tonight That I Might See (1993). Similar to the debut, but a bit more forceful in construction and execution, the emphasis remains on mood and texture, rather than melodic variety or clever messages. That's both an attraction and a hindrance: the languorous laments and pulsating waves of guitars can be very seductive, but the lack of diversity can also become monotonous, and the stress of form over content can disguise a hollow emotional core. Roback and Sandoval might do better to devote more space to the melancholy of their acoustic laments, and less to driving around the cul-de-sac of slow-burning guitar drones.

A year after its release, So Tonight That I Might See yielded an unexpected hit single, the wispy "Fade Into You". The album, seemingly destined for the cut-out bin, began an unexpected ascent into the US Top 40, and Mazzy Star were suddenly stars in sales as well as name. Make that anti-stars: Roback and Sandoval are notoriously difficult interview subjects, responding to most questions with monosyllables or silence. Their subsequent release, Among My Swan (1996) confirmed them as out-and-out champions of the mournful – their brooding, enigmatic public personas seem less a cultivated pose than a complement to the shadowy, brooding mystery of their simultaneously frustrating and entrancing soundscapes.

Sandoval made her solo debut in 2001 with Bavarian Fruit Bread ostensibly backed by the Warm Inventions, though really this is a pairing with Colm O'Ciosoig (once of My Bloody Valentine) with folk legend Bert Jansch popping up with his six string on the beautiful "Butterfly Mornings" and "Charlotte". Largely written by Sandoval, this plunges further into a languidly erotic, narcoleptic haze than even Mazzy Star could manage, the latter's spacey guitar rejected as possibly too energetic for the collection's country/folk saturated sleepiness. Adorable.

Rough Guides to Rock.
First edition published Aug 96 / Nov 96 (USA).

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