Sunday, July 26, 2015

Opal's "Happy Nightmare Baby": Music Review

For over three decades, David Roback crafts neo-psychedelia with a punch, and a sensuous sprawl. Best known for leading Mazzy Star, he co-founded Los Angeles' Rain Parade. They combined indie- punk spirit with the haze of the Byrds and the Doors. Their initial recordings stayed quiet, however, preferring atmospheric yearning over amplified confrontation. After Roback was kicked out of that band, he started Clay Allison in 1983. After a couple of singles, that ensemble changed their name to the more evocative Opal. This was well-chosen, as the jeweled shimmer of that gemstone can reveal transparency or remain opaque. Similarly, the band's sound invited intimacy or turned away from it.

{Happy Nightmare Baby} stands out for its contributions by bassist Kendra Smith. Leaving the band she had co-founded in 1981 with Steve Wynn as The Dream Syndicate, another influential Paisley Underground L.A.-based ensemble, she joined Clay Allison. They recorded a strong first single, "Fell From the Sun," later covered by The Pale Saints. With Keith Mitchell on drums, Roback's new band progressed from a folk-blues blend into a more spacious, looser musical path into eerie introspection.

That's why some of the best songs on their first and only full-length album (SST, 1987) surprise. More assertive, more unhinged, its varied tracks appeal to the upended sensibility that Opal favored as they became confident rather than hesitant. "Rocket Machine" begins with swaggering vocals, crunchy guitar and staggered keyboards. On first hearing this, I swore it was a T-Rex cover. Roback and Smith, who together write two-thirds of these nine tracks, opt for a sinister swirl. One of the standout tracks, its ambitious arrangement succeeds. Taking its time to roam, it deepens its ambiance.

"Magick Power" repeats the title phrase and the riff, as it bores down. Roback's production scatters bits of the guitars, drums, and organ into the background. He keeps the center focused on the clash of percussion and the unruffled chant of Smith. This tension enriches the track, keeping it unpredictable.

"Relevation" features the rambling, slightly country-and-western lope that both Rain Parade and Mazzy Star sustained. It rolls along as one of its shortest songs. Lighter in tone, it ambles smoothly.

"A Falling Star" returns to the glam rock template. Smith's detached vocal challenges the hearer. She waits, speaking between effects-laden guitar, and over Keith Mitchell's tapped percussion. It's over barely after it began. This segues into "She's A Diamond." Anticipating the attitude of Mazzy's Star's vocalist, sultry Hope Sandoval, Smith's delivery again states her confident disdain, this time of a rival for love. Roback chose both his vocalists well; he seems to prefer female singers who hint of danger.

Some of this album recalls the bluesy style of Opal's previous pair of E.P.s. These, collected as {Early Recordings}, explored folksier directions. Mazzy Star took up these often, especially in its latest incarnation, on 2013's eloquent and mature reunion album {Seasons of Your Joy}. These sounds, in rawer form, can be found in Opal's own integration of glam and psychedelia, blues and country, hard rock and spacier excursions. Some may find {Happy Nightmare Baby} tedious if taken in all at once. It suits a reflective or melancholy state of mind, but this beckons as a dark backdrop for altered states.

"Supernova" compresses the insistent, Eastern-tinged guitar and keyboards coupling into a more grating, aggressive tune. Smith's vocals integrate her calm tone into the grittier, more unsettled melody. Roback's arrangement emphasizes a droning background, against a harsher guitar attack. Well-sequenced, this pairing with "Siamese Trap" and its clanging chords and keyboards harmonize. The closing track, "Soul Giver," reprised from an E.P., mixes the organ and guitar, percussion and vocals, into an imperious anthem. These three songs stir the abrasive into the smooth. They invite seduction, yet remain forbidding. Opal's co-leaders write songs that can stretch out and let the groove unfold and wander. Not as catchy as the shorter tunes, they insist on repetition and textured layering.

Still, the concise combination of tunefulness and mystery energizes the title track. Imagine Nico fronting The Doors. Ray Manzarek's keyboard style gains a homage on this song, although I cannot identify whether Suki Ewers or William Cooper plays (both went on to work with Mazzy Star; Aaron Sherer is also credited here, if tersely, and I assume he contributes tabla and/or drums). Both Mazzy Star and Opal stress in photos and presentation only the lead guitarist and the female singer. But both bands benefit from their overshadowed backing musicians. The spare liner notes on their records discourage the acclaim the whole band merits for their subtle or forceful moments enhancing Roback.

The guitarist remains as the only constant in his lineups. Smith left the band during a tour opening for the Jesus and Mary Chain. Sandoval, who accompanied Opal, took over as singer, before the band changed its name once again to become Mazzy Star. That band became much more famous than any of the Paisley Underground. Still, Smith and her colleagues deserve respect for their talents, as this album proves. Smith's sole solo album, cleverly titled {Five Ways of Disappearing} (4 AD, 1995) is worth seeking out for its own enervated appeal. By the 1990s, she was said to be living in a cave in Northern California, raising goats in Humboldt County and playing the pump organ, far off the grid. (2-16-15 to Spectrum Culture)

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