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Tuesday, March 22, 2005
Artist Overview: Rain Parade * Opal * Mazzy Star
Mazzy Star is best known for a single fluke near-hit, the wistful, achingly romantic, windswept waltz "Fade Into You", which just missed the top-40 in 1994, peaking at #44.
For those who recall that song, but have never investigated their albums, Mazzy Star may well appear to be yet another one-hit wonder, albeit one without an actual hit. The band has done itself no favors in getting the word out about its own music; guitarist David Roback and singer Hope Sandoval are notoriously interview-adverse and seldom promoted their work. It has been nearly nine years since their last album, although Sandoval, who has released three CD's in the interim, recently claimed that Mazzy Star hasn't broken up. Their CD covers did not feature their photographs, in concert the band lurked in the shadows and seldom engaged the audience in stage patter, the band's sporadic promo videos were impressionistic and seldom played on MTV.
Their music has been described as ethereal, hypnotic, psychedelic, country-folkish, lonesome and detached. They've been compared to the Velvet Underground and the Doors. Yet none of these labels quite fit; Mazzy Star is as flukish as its hit, an aberration in the 90's rock world; neither in step with the times, nor like anyone else. They've always existed in their own insular world.
Mazzy Star is worth investigating, as is its founder, David Roback, who had previously formed Opal and the criminally underrated paisley underground pioneers Rain Parade. Mazzy Star was the ultimate culmination and perfection of the sound he had been developing since 1981; its roots are deep and organic.
Rain Parade was formed in 1981 in Los Angeles as a neo-psychedelic band, reviving and updating some long-outmoded 60's styles: hypnotic guitar drone, Byrds-like melodicism, psychedelic pop. The initial lineup consisted of David Roback on guitar, brother Steven Roback on bass, Matt Piucci (vocals, guitar), Will Glenn (keyboards), and Eddie Kalwa (drums). They were among the spearheads of a new L.A. area psychedelic revival scene, which included Dream Syndicate, The 3 O'Clock, The Bangles, Green on Red, and The Long Ryders. This scene was dubbed the "paisley underground" after the paisley shirts favored by many of the musicians. While all of these bands gained cult followings, and the Bangles eventually hit the bigtime, Rain parade never became a household name beyond a small coterie of devoted fans.
Their 1982 debut single, the Byrdsy "What She's Done To Your Mind" garnered some airplay on college radio, and the band recorded their full length debut for Enigma records in 1983. Emergency Third Rail Power Trip is a classic, albeit a difficult-to-find one. It is an album rife with hidden pleasures, from the propulsive bad-trip psychedelica of "This Can't Be Today" (with Dream Syndicate's Kendra Smith helping on vocals), to the merry-go-round psychedelica of "Look at Merri" to tuneful, melodic folkie psychedelica like "I Look Around" and the sleepy, dreamlike "1 Hour 1/2 Ago". Despite the color in their music, their lyrical content was frequently depressed and alienated; they never sounded very happy, which actually was part of their charm. David Roback's guitar was the star of the show; fond of reverb, feedback, and discordant runs, he managed to update psychedelica to such a degree that the album could very easily have been recorded in the 1960's, 1980's or 1990's.
In 1984, David Roback left the band to form Opal with Kendra Smith. Rain Parade continued without him, releasing the excellent EP Explosions In The Glass Palace, which featured a modernized raga-rock "No Easy Way Down" co-written by David. The band had a shot at the big-time with the not-bad Crashing Dream, for Island records, but the album wasn't promoted and tanked (it remains unreleased on CD to this day). Rain Parade broke up after that, but several members, including Steven Roback, formed Viva Saturn, which released several good but seldom-heard albums in the 90's.
Opal's first releases were EP's, Fell from The Sun (1984) and Northern Line (1985). Both were built upon the blueprint lain on Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, but benefited from Kendra Smith's confident, strong vocals and Roback's increasingly broad palatte of sonic textures. Their lone album, Happy Nightmare Baby, appeared in 1987 on SST records and is an interesting one. Dark and sinister, it ranges from the faux-T. Rex "Rocket Machine" to the Doors-like "Siamese Trap" and "Magick Power". Their sound is stripped and bare as much as it can be; guitar-bass-drums-organ, with minimal overdubs and production. Mazzy Star fans may regard this as a transitional album between Roback's two other bands, although thanks largely to Smith's dark lyrical obsessions and jazzy inflections, it really stands well on its own merits.
Smith left during the Happy Nightmare Baby tour, to be replaced by Hope Sandoval (ex-Going Home). Eventually the band (which essentially was Roback and Sandoval with session players) changed its name to Mazzy Star. A final Opal release, Early Recordings, appeared in 1989, and featured most of their first two EP's and assorted demos and unreleased material. It's a fine introduction to the gentler, more folk-oriented textures Roback and Sandoval would explore with Mazzy Star.
Mazzy Star's debut on Rough Trade, She Hangs Brightly, came out in 1990. It is the culmination of all that had come before; dreamy, dark, slightly sinister psychelica with an abundance of sad lyrics, and interspersed with moments of melodic folk touches. Roback had even added some country elements to his playing in places, and the resulting album is a smorgasboard of different textures and flavors, ranging from the semi-erotic country folk "Ride It On" to the trance-inducing layered acoustic guitar based "Taste of Blood" to the garagey "Blue Flower". The Rough Trade label folded shortly after the album's release, but the band was picked up by Capitol, which kept the CD in print.
So Tonight That I Might See followed in 1993, yielding the surprise near-hit "Fade Into You". This is perhaps the most realized album of Roback's career; every cut is a standout, from the twisted feedback drenched "She's My Baby", featuring a sexy, detached vocal from Sandoval, to the romping acoustic "Unreflected" to the gorgeous cover of Love's "Five String Serenade" to the lush and languid "Blue Light" to the nightmarish stoned blues "Wasted", perhaps Roback's greatest moment of psychedelic guitar slashes. Sandoval shows herself to be the perfect foil for Roback's guitar experiments; as a duo, they bring out each other's strengths without overshadowing each other.
In 1995, the band contributed a song "Tell Me Now" to the Batman Forever soundtrack. The Among My Sawn CD from 1996 is the last word we've heard from them. Like its predecessors, it covers similar territory; "I've Been Let Down" is not dissimilar to "Ride It On", "So Cold" and "Rhymes Of An Hour" would fit right in on any of their albums. While this lack of progression came as a bit of a disappointment to fans at the time, the album holds up as a good one; saved by Roback's always interesting playing, tasteful, understated surprises in the production, and Sandoval's eerily detached singing.
And that, so far, is that. Nothing more has been heard from Mazzy Star. Sandoval has released a solo album, Bavarian Fruit Bread (2001) featuring Colm O'Ciosoig from My Bloody Valentine, and a two EP's, At The Doorway Again (2000) and Suzanne (2002), again with O'Ciosoig. All are vaguely reminiscent of her Mazzy Star work, but is gentler, more folkish in tone.
Maverick David Roback, ever an enigma, appeared on Beth Orton's Central Reservation in 1999, as guitarist and as a producer, and has worked on occasional producing projects since then, although little has appeared in stores.
Capitol has been rumored to be preparing a Mazzy Star anthology for a couple of years now, but it has yet to surface. While it seems unlikely that there will be more from the band, its fans still cling to desperate hopes; its cult is a remarkably fervent one. Roback's quixotic quest for the psychedelic Holy Grail has been a fascinating journey so far. Let's hope we haven't heard the last from him.