Not a ton of people remember Opal (actually, to remember a band, you need to have heard of them in the first place, right?). It’s a shame, although admittedly, this is an acquired taste: think Syd Barrett’s Floyd (circa Piper At The Gates of Dawn) and The Doors, heavy organ action and a certain lysergic vibe (but black-and-white blotter paper, not a technicolor trip), and insert a female vocalist with a subdued style that borders on lugubrious…sounds terrible, right? Well, that is what most folks would probably think. Kendra Smith (vocals) and David Roback (guitar), formerly of The Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade, respectively, comprised a sort of Paisley Underground all-star team. Think Velvet Underground cut with a British garage band’s blues affectations (in other words, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn). Not many bands can successfully blend melancholy and bliss quite like this. Smith and Roback were sui generis, in their way.
Listen to 1987’s twenty-year time warp “Magick Power.” (If you like what you hear, beg, borrow or steal their lost semi-masterpiece, Happy Nightmare, Baby then, once you’re hooked, call out a favor or find a friend to track down the almost impossible to procure Early Recordings.)
So, aside from the reason that they were making (convincing) ’60s era psychedelic shoe-gazer downer rock in the Gorden Gekko ’80s (see: not commercially viable), the other reason no one has heard of Opal is that they were essentially dissolving in real time. This begs a fundamental, if ultimately unanswerable question: do bands (and albums) like this spring forth from a specific scene, a particular time that could only exist once? What would the next work have sounded like, in the later ’80s or, improbably, the early ’90s? In this instance, history settled itself before we could hear the results. After Happy Nightmare Baby, Smith opted out of the band during a tour, and twenty-two year old Hope Sandoval stepped in to assume vocal duties. They renamed the band Mazzy Star and released an album, She Hangs Brightly (1990), that did not exactly set the world on fire. Nevertheless, it laid the tranquil foundation for what was to come; the subsequent work would be more languid and a tad darker, but slightly more confident (see: not commercially viable).
Although the almost impossibly beautiful song “Fade Into You” was the breakthrough single of Mazzy Star’s next album (1993’s So Tonight That I Might See), there are (at least) two other transcendent moments: “Blue Light” (tasty live version here) and the remarkable cover of Arthur Lee’s gorgeous “Five String Serenade.“
Hope Sandoval received most of the attention, and no camera or video recorder could resist her. But holding all of this together, from the acoustic strumming to the languid slide guitar is David Roback’s inimitable sound: a deep, dark groove that could be somber and sublime, ethereal and uplifting.
For this writer, Roback’s all-time best work (and Mazzy’s masterpiece) is their third album, 1996’s Among My Swan. Not unlike Happy Nightmare Baby, it arrived (and exists) somewhat out of time, neither forward-looking nor nostalgic; in other words, it’s a strikingly original, stylistic triumph.From the way-overlooked, almost-classic Among My Swan, a yin-yang message of…hope and love?
RIP to an original, a musician of uncommon grace and sensitivity, with perfect instincts and an uncanny ability to transmute the past, present, and future into a single, unmistakable, and very memorable sound.