Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Mazziest Star

One of my favorite rock storylines is when a band or artist reappears out of nowhere after completely dropping off the map, especially when it's a spectacular return to form.  That's why I'm giddy about the new Mazzy Star CD I've been driving around town with.

Most people who know Mazzy Star, know them from their one "hit", "Fade Into You," a lugubrious maybe love song that might be about feelings that were never noticed or reciprocated by the "you" in question. Or not.

And that is Mazzy Star in a nutshell--subdued, restrained, off-kilter, but probably meaning more than they say, possessing all kinds of musical chops that they are probably not showing off, and, really, just a bit weird.  In both the best way and the worst way,  a listener got the feeling that they were not reaching for anything, especially stardom.

But that was a long time ago, especially in popular music years, even alternative music years.  Now Seasons Of Your Day arrives some 17 years after their previous CD.  Now, the first chance to hear the new one came courtesy of NPR. That's the musical world we are in now.

"In The Kingdom," the opener adds a simple organ riff in front of the trademark reverbed slide guitar.  Hope Sandoval's carry a surprising lightness.  To imagine her singing "Hey, hey" as filler was once unthinkable.  The guitar is always on the move between slides and fills that follow the chord changes. I could listen to this pleasant little song for a long, long time.  "California" undercuts its title with the first strummed minor chord, but on these early songs, Sandoval's voice is not as deep in the reverb as it has been and the mix gives it plenty of space.  One can almost imagine an acoustic Jimmy Page strumming behind a female Robert Plant.  There's a haze here that the song never allows to burn off.  "I've Gotta Stop" drifts into territory occupied by Patsy Cline or Maria McKee of Lone Justice.  It's a lament, but the kind where the singer doesn't really want or believe what she's saying, and Sandoval as teaser is very affecting.  "Does Someone Have Your Baby Now?" initially implies sympathy, but the singer has no interest in supplying sexual consolation.  "Common Burn" may be the best of the bunch, at least musically.  Its mix of guitar, voice, harmonica, slide, and vibes creates a pleasant, summery Neil Young feel that confidently fits on most any playlist format.  The title track is an acoustic guitar and voice rumination that, like several songs on the CD, works the stripped-down approach to great advantage. But my favorite so far is "Lay Myself Down," a driving Grateful Dead type country song with a tambourine and a pedal steel and cryptic lyrics that still work.  After all, this is Mazzy Star.

Luckily, many of the songs are worth waiting for, even for those of us who didn't realize that we were waiting at all.  And it isn't just because of lead singer Hope Sandoval or the persona she conveys.  David Roback, the guitarist and co-songwriter, is simply better than he was.  His blend of electric and acoustic is more separated and engaging, his lead work, riffs, and fills are tastier and more complex.

As for Sandoval herself, it is as if she has returned to remind the current crop of alt-ish female emo-crooners (not a critical term, just a struggle to characterize the genre) where they got their sound from.  In Sandoval's voice and lyrics, in her delivery through a thorough soaking of reverb, I hear everything from Lana Rey's schtick (with subtlety) to even most of what Neko Case is about.

Admittedly, the last few songs on Seasons Of You Day are not as engaging, but then a Mazzy Star CD has never been something you play top to bottom over and over.  I wouldn't even claim they were ever a great band, just a band with some great songs and when all the pieces fit, there was/is no one like them in all their glory.

I don't know why Mazzy Star makes me so happy.  There isn't much happy in the songs.  I don't really tap my foot on the floorboard on hand on the steering wheel to them.  I think it's mostly that storyline, that reminder that there are things that do exist outside of time, or at least outside of the time arcs that we have come to expect--a CD every 2-3 years and when you're done, you're done.

Au contraire, says Mazzy Star.  We live in our own world on our own time and we show up with what we've got when it feels right to us.  Rock has always supported such iconoclasts.  It's good to have them back.  It doesn't change much, but the small pleasure that comes from a batch of pretty good songs is always something.

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