Suspended Between Sky and Shadow
Hope Sandoval’s narcoleptic air, her drowsy voice and waifish demeanor, infused three albums by this loose lineup, under the direction of guitarist David Roback, between 1990 and 1996. Roback’s previous band, Rain Parade, inspired many in the Los Angeles area with their own subdued, yet insistent, update on psychedelic textures as part of the Paisley Underground movement. Sandoval, then a teenager and a fan of the band, joined the successor to Rain Parade, Opal. They morphed into the enigmatically named Mazzy Star. Roback and Sandoval formed a romantic and musical partnership that lasted until (it gets hazy) the connections faded and the formula of sticking to alternative-era successes—such as their hit “Fade Into You”—wearied the duo.
This back history of Sandoval, Roback, and the other members (who often are shadowed and less credited unless you do some searching) must preface this return, seventeen years later, to form. Recorded since at least the mid-1990s in London, California, and Norway, the ten tracks and fifty minutes that comprise Seasons of Your Day show a perfectly timed and thoughtfully chosen sequence of simple songs, played sparely. Seasons of Your Day grows on you and demands repeated listenings. At first, as with Rain Parade and Opal and the band’s previous recordings, the songs may feel too airy, too evanescent.
With exposure and scrutiny, the atmosphere around Sandoval’s voice emerges. Co-producer Roback’s finicky style, one senses, accounts for the long years of assembling this album. He echoes classic AOR rock. I hear far less the psychedelic swirl of his 1980s phase and much more the acoustic styles of “Wild Horses”, “Going to California”, and “Wish You Were Here”, which would have featured, I suppose, among his LPs as he grew up in balmy Pacific Palisades in the early seventies.
During that time, any coastal Californian teen could not escape The Beach Boys as the endless summer soundtrack. “In the Kingdom” immediately evokes this ambiance with its organ introduction, and Roback’s bluesy guitar drops in to carry this into Sandoval’s slow-burn mood, enhanced by soft wave-like splashes of brushed drums, slightly jazzy percussion, and noodling, then sharper, guitar progressions. This structure demonstrates Mazzy Star’s gentle control of its direction, and it’s a promising indication of the craft underlying and unifying this album.
“California” conjures up Led Zeppelin’s early acoustic guitar material. Roback creates tension in the upward riff, and Sandoval’s steady delivery, as she sings about the ocean’s call to draw her in, works well to balance the pull of the slightly edgy music, as it overlays her dreamy spell. Like a lost song from a Rolling Stones record in their country-shaded period, “I’ve Gotta Stop” shuffles along into dust. Weariness lyrically and musically pervades this, and the middle of the album hushes.
The acoustic, folksy “Does Someone Have Your Baby Now” brings back Roback’s overlooked band between Rain Parade and Mazzy Star, Opal. That ensemble tended towards a darker, more spooky side, under singer Kendra Smith (ex-Dream Syndicate); it’s great to hear the band enter this slyly haunted, ominous space, graced by Roback’s slide guitar. “Common Burn” returns to a harmonica and guitar, twilit scenario. It’s not a weak song, but it feels straightforward and does not veer much from its initial start. The title track, halfway in, lifts up by violin into a richer, poignant song so Sandoval can moan and long for love in a convincing fashion. The interplay of strings and percussion returns at the end to cap an affecting song with conviction.
The Western amble of “Flying Low” enriches the progression of the album, which leans much more in a country-rock style than Mazzy Star’s earlier work, until it rises slowly into a muted chorus over slide guitar. Sandoval uses this rustic preference to glide along over either Roback’s guitar alone or the band backing. Both arrangements work, and at best, they trade off. Best of all on the already lovely “Swallow”, when at 2:30 in its four minutes, this sidles into an elegant, baroque keyboard fill.
Longtime collaborators of Roback, most predating Sandoval, deserve mention for their disciplined, subtle, and measured contributions as backing members. The late William Cooper offers violin on “Seasons of Your Day”; Suki Ewers on keyboard, Keith Mitchell on drums, and Paul Mitchell on keyboard appear once again to be Mazzy Star’s musical foundation. The Long Ryders’ Stephen McCarthy plays pedal steel guitar on “Lay Myself Down”; Sandoval’s partner in her longtime side project The Warm Inventions, Colm Ó Cíosóig of My Bloody Valentine, is credited as a multi-instrumentalist, while early Paisley Undergrounder Paul Olguin adds bass on “Lay Myself Down”.
The recently departed, legendary folk musician Bert Jansch appears on “Spoon” (recorded in the late 1990s in London), providing his trademark ringing guitar, with its novel, always innovative modal tunings, to another track displaying Roback, Sandoval, and the band’s ability to know when to feature the voice, when to let the instruments play, and when to combine them. “Lay Myself Down” concludes with more slide guitar, and this longer song lets the band join in another harmonica-backed, edgier, and crabbier bluesy excursion into sexual frustration and, we sense at last, release.
This long-awaited album release will please faithful fans. As one who has followed Roback and his band mates for thirty-odd years now, I judge this fulfills expectations. Its lyrical understatement and deliberately minimalist presentation may not excite newcomers, but 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.