[30 September 2009]
As half of Mazzy Star, Hope Sandoval forged a sound so distinctive that even blatant imitators have had a hard time duplicating it. Adjectives abound when describing the band: ethereal, haunting, enchanting, airy, brooding, erotic… You get the picture. And while a large part of the band’s appeal was guitarist David Roback’s hazy, often erratic playing, there’s no doubt it was Sandoval’s voice that inspired many a listener to lay in bed at night, slack-jawed and spellbound. I know I did.
For those, like me, who fell under Sandoval’s spell, her infrequent output—both with and without Mazzy Star—is frustrating. The last Mazzy Star album, Among My Swan, came out in 1996, and her work with the Warm Inventions (which, like Mazzy Star, is essentially a duo fleshed out by guest musicians) has also been sparse. The band’s last LP, 2001’s Bavarian Fruit Bread, showcased Sandoval’s voice front and center, but maybe that’s because the music was so subdued it often seemed an afterthought. Then again, how could you not showcase that voice?
Thankfully, the eight-year hiatus has served Sandoval and her Warm Inventions collaborator, former My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, very well. Their latest album, Through the Devil Softly, is not only more fully developed than its predecessor, it also provides the musical context that Sandoval’s voice demands. Less folky and more nocturnal than Bavarian Fruit Bread, Devil will no doubt have Sandoval’s fans trading in hours of rest for one of those long nights of listening in the dark.
To be sure, Sandoval’s voice has always sounded best when set against musical backgrounds that are just as darkly mysterious; that tone is definitely achieved here, beginning with opening track “Blanchard”. As Sandoval purrs over a simple, repeating chord progression, tremolo guitar lines waver through the air like heat rising from the highway on a hot summer afternoon. “Who should we blame for the things that we do?” Sandoval asks, the overall effect both hypnotic and unsettling.
Indeed, a slightly eerie tone pervades the album, achieved through both the atmospheric arrangements and Sandoval’s often-disconcerting lyrics. “For the Rest of Your Life”, for example, is built upon a thick, ropy bass line that, alone, is sultry and seductive. Juxtaposed, however, against vibes and random stabs of guitar, it feels more threatening than enticing, particularly when Sandoval sings, “Never let your hand shake when you’re firm on your blade”.
That seems to be Sandoval’s modus operandi on Through the Devil Softly: to allure and then disturb, to entice with lulling music only to unnerve with disconcerting confessions. Just about every track, from “Trouble” to “Sets Ablaze” to “There’s a Willow”, features a troubled narrator who seems to take strange delight in her darkest impulses. This, perhaps, explains the title of the album, which perfectly describes the overall tone of this collection of songs.
And that’s where some may find fault with this album. While many albums feature songs threaded by a common theme, this one also features songs threaded by the same tempo and tone. Those looking for sonic variation won’t find it here, but that seems to be beside the point. To complain about Sandoval’s music being slow and sultry would be like, say, complaining about Scorsese using tracking shots—that’s what she does, and she does it better than most.
So, after eight long years, fans of Sandoval finally have something to be excited about, for Through the Devil Softly does not disappoint. With Sandoval playing the archetypal femme fatale here, the album easily ranks among her best work. And if that weren’t enough, Mazzy Star has reportedly nearly completed their long-anticipated fourth album. The drought, thankfully, appears to be over.