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Keeping Hope Alive: Remembering Opal and Mazzy Star

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Thursday, Apr 23, 2009

Not a ton of people remember Opal (actually, to remember a band, you need to have heard of them in the first place, right?). It’s a shame, although admittedly, this is an acquired taste: think Syd Barrett’s Floyd (circa Piper at the Gates of Dawn) and the Doors, heavy organ action and a certain lysergic vibe (but black-and-white blotter paper, not a technicolor trip), and insert a female vocalist with a subdued style that borders on lugubrious…sounds terrible, right? Well, that is what most folks would probably think. Kendra Smith (vocals) and David Roback (guitar), formerly of Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade, respectively, comprised a sort of Paisley Underground all-star team. Think Velvet Underground cut with a British garage band’s blues affectations (in other words, Piper at the Gates of Dawn). Listen to 1987’s 20-year time warp “Magick Power” below. (If you like what you hear, beg, borrow or steal their lost semi-masterpiece, Happy Nightmare Baby and then, once you’re hooked, call out a favor or find a friend to track down the almost impossible to procure Early Recordings.)
  


So, aside from the reason that they were making (convincing) ’60s era psychedelic shoe-gazer downer rock in the Gorden Gecko ’80s (see: not commercially viable), the other reason no one has heard of Opal is that they were essentially one-and-done. This begs a fundamental, if ultimately unanswerable question: do bands (and albums) like this spring forth from a specific scene, a particular time that could only exist once? What would the next work have sounded like, in the later ’80s or, improbably, the early ’90s? In this instance, history settled itself before we could hear the results. After Happy Nightmare Baby, Smith opted out of the band during a tour, and 22-year-old Hope Sandoval stepped in to assume vocal duties. They renamed the band Mazzy Star and released an album, She Hangs Brightly (1990), that did not exactly set the world on fire. Nevertheless, it laid the tranquil foundation for what was to come; the subsequent work would be more languid and a tad darker, but slightly more confident (see: not commercially viable).


Although the almost impossibly beautiful song “Fade Into You” was the breakthrough single of Mazzy Star’s next album (1993’s So Tonight That I Might See), there are (at least) two other transcendent moments: “Blue Light” and the remarkable cover of Arthur Lee’s gorgeous “Five String Serenade”:


Another three years passed, just long enough for fickle fans and trend-followers to forget about the band with a chick’s name. This next album, not unlike Happy Nightmare Baby, arrived (and exists) somewhat out of time, neither forward-looking nor nostalgic; in other words, it’s a strikingly original, stylistic triumph. From the way-overlooked, almost-classic Among My Swan, a yin-yang message of…hope and love?


Although Mazzy Star had significantly more commercial appeal than Opal (this is meant as neither a critique of Opal nor necessarily an assertion of Mazzy Star’s crossover potential), it was unlikely they ever would have found a large audience. To their credit, it’s equally unlikely that they gave a rat’s ass. But whatever the reason, they never made another album. This hurt, then, and remains painful, now. So what happened? It’s a fair question fans are entitled to ask, however improbable it is that they will receive an answer. Despite her rock star status and movie star looks, Sandoval maintains the lowest of profiles. Considering how simple it is to find out more than you’d ever want to know about any semi-celebrity nowadays, courtesy of the Internet, the relative scarcity of biographical information available for Sandoval is telling. Her reticence makes Greta Garbo look like Paris Hilton.


In 2001 Hope finally came out of hiding with the release of her solo album Bavarian Fruit Bread. Mixed, but mostly solid and, as usual, containing some genuinely stunning songs, it was a very welcome addition to her catalog. Maybe this was a second wind of sorts, and we’d see more of her in Y2K? Yeah right.


Eight years and counting, there had been no new material. Intriguingly, word is that Hope will appear on the upcoming Massive Attack album. That should be interesting, if the rumors are true. In the meantime, Hope contributed a song for an Air France compilation entitled In The Air. Better than nothing, certainly, but let’s hope Sandoval has more than a few albums left in her. For now, we’ll settle for one more.


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24 Oct 2013
Those familiar with the languid delivery of Hope Sandoval and the teasing alternation of holding back and letting go that characterizes David Roback's music, with and without his band mates, will recognize Mazzy Star's perch between celestial elevation and shrouded descent.
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