Mazzy Star is Releasing a New Album and I Just Had a Flashback

Jul 26, 2013 by

Mazzy Star recently announced the release of their first new album, Seasons of Your Day, in 17 years.  If that wasn’t enough to send old fans into a dreamy tizzy, the release of their new single, California, surely did.

I’m not going to lie; I was in at least partial tizzy when I heard the news.  The only thing stopping me from full blown tizzy was fear the new songs would just rehash the old sound, or even worse, there would be no place in 2013 for a band so deeply rooted in 80s/90s culture and sounds.  If there is no place for Dave Roback and Hope Sandoval, then maybe there’s no place for me.

Or maybe, less melodramatically, I just wouldn’t like it and I’d be bummed.

OK, fears waylaid.  Yes, in some ways it’s a rehashing of their sound, but in other ways, “if it ain’t broke…”  As usual the production is dense and this seemingly simple song is much more complex as the layers are peeled back.  As for whether or not 2013 has a place for Mazzy Star, it turns out just about every decade since the sixties has plenty of room for beautiful dreamy psychedelic pop with lots of minor chords and a sense of deep longing.  Whew, glad I didn’t have to start packing my bags for a different time.

Obviously I’m a fan, and while I will quite readily admit Fade Into You, was the song my wife and I first danced to at our wedding (It was actually our second choice, I’m Sticking with You by the Velvet Underground was first, but we figured it was a little too weird, and we weren’t really sure how to dance to it), my love of Mazzy Star didn’t start there.

It started with a small article in a Rolling Stone (Spin?) magazine while I was a senior in High School.  I’d just started taking acid the year before and had decided it was the answer.  When I say the answer, I mean all the answers.  I was reading any and everything about it, so naturally an article titled “Lysergic Underground” focusing on the psychedelic garage scene (Paisley Underground, a way less cool name than Lysergic Underground) in California, would capture my attention.  The accompanying picture was a suitably hazy washed out purple image of the band Opal, with Hope Sandoval, front and center.

Without the internet and living in an extremely unhip town, my only access to what was “new” in music was through word of mouth, Rolling Stone/Spin, 120 Minutes and my local record store.  None of whom seemed to know who the hell Opal was.  Since I had the name of the band and the record label, I went ahead and ordered Happy Nightmare Baby.  While waiting on my shiny new tape to be delivered, I purchased albums by Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade, the two bands Opal sprang from.

At the time, I was primarily focused on heavy psychedelia with bands like Screaming Trees, Jane’s Addiction, Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Eleventh Day Dream, etc .  These were the precursors, and full participators, in what was to become Grunge.  We were more innocent then, we called all of it Punk and the word psychedelic didn’t automatically mean it was stupid.  Ahh, those were the days.

I was a little surprised to find Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade to be so…mellow.  They reminded me more of REM/Feelies, Velvet Underground inspired band, or the current “College Radio” than what I was considering psychedelic.   Of course that’s what happens when you live in a vacuum, you think words only have one meaning.  A friend of mine gave me the Byrds to listen to, and suddenly it all started to make sense.  It opened up a whole new realm of psychedelic pop that was as of yet unknown to me.  I still love that shit to this day.  Each decade finds new ways to twist those sunny California pop melodies into something new, yet still familiar.  Listening can take you into the past while staring straight ahead into an unknown, but somehow hopeful, future.  It’s just so…psychedelic.

Just as I’d started to familiarize myself with all of this softer, dreamier music, Opal arrived at my doorstep.  The first thing I noticed was there was no Hope Sandoval.  I was wildly disappointed.  Mind you, I had yet to hear a single word fall from the siren’s lips, yet I just knew I’d been ripped off.  In addition to that, I’d expected trippy cover art and a general feeling of love to emanate from this album straight into my serotonin receptors.  Instead what I got was a stark white album with two black and white photos  – one of Kendra Smith, the lead singer and bassist looking, as my Mom would say, “Drugged Out” and the other of Dave Roback, sitting on the hood of his car looking like he was wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into.  I could feel his pain, I was feeling the same way.

I popped in the cassette, smoked a quick bowl, and leaned back across my waterbed (that’s right, I had a waterbed), closed my eyes and waited for the dulcet sounds of California dream pop to wash over me.

It never happened.

Happy Nightmare Baby opens up with Rocket Machine, a droning, relentless, blues influenced trip through hell.  Kendra’s vocal style (I’ve heard it called nonchalant by fans and atonal by detractors) is best summed up by mom’s previous assertion, “Drugged Out” and world weary.  She most definitely sounds like she has been through it.  Roback brings in all of his previous tricks, dense layering (of both guitars and vocals) and string arrangements that don’t sound superfluous, but gently meld in with everything else he has going on in the song. 

This continues on throughout the album, from the liquid wah wah slow stomp of She’s a Diamond, to the T-Rex bounce of Relevation, Roback and Smith combine sunny melodies with acid drenched distortion and feedback to create a singular work of psychedelia, perfectly capturing the bridge between the REM rock of the late 80s and the Grunge sound of the early 90s.  The album has its knocks for production, and while elements of it are a bit muddled, I find that more charming than detracting.  Frying that hard on acid is bound to muddle things up occasionally.

When I said the album was singular, I wasn’t kidding.  The next album from Opal, featuring Kendra Smith, was a volume of early recordings that sound much closer to Mazzy Star than anything on Happy Nightmare Baby (Well except for maybe the song Happy Nightmare Baby).  It’s a great album, far more accessible than Nightmare, but less of a work of art.

Opal’s career was short lived, Kendra stormed off stage mid show and Roback recruited Sandoval to take her place.  Contract obligations to the label necessitated touring for the album, so Sandoval and Roback continued to perform as Opal – which is how I ended up having the picture of Opal with Sandoval hanging on my wall.

While Mazzy Star was certainly no Opal, they did continue the same traditions of California psychedelia.  They retained the moodiness of their previous incarnation while brightening up the production and toning down the grunge.  It’s a great example of Roback’s chameleon nature; with Sandoval he has a completely different canvas to work with, and he does a great job of keeping her at the center of their sound.   Happy Nightmare Baby was art, Mazzy Star is just good music.  I don’t listen to either one of them very much anymore, but I’m finding myself excited to hear the full album. Roback and Sandoval have proven themselves to be thoughtful, introspective and creative musicians, I’m interested to find out where the last 17 years have taken them, and as a result, where they’ll take us.

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