My story with Mazzy Star begins around 1994 when So Tonight That I Might See started to become popular. A flatmate had a copy and in 1995 we played it regularly round the house. When she moved out, I missed it so bad I had to procure my own copy. It seemed to me way back then, or at least by the release of Among My Swan that all anybody needed was one Mazzy Star album, and So Tonight, being widely regarded as the best was it.
I moved to Japan in 2001 and from a collection of 600+ albums, selected twenty CDs to take with me. So Tonight was one of them. It became a regular listen for those first few months. After replacing my CD copy with the remastered (and vastly superior sounding) vinyl in 2010, and playing it again, I realized that I had to own She Hangs Brightly and Among My Swan, such was my pleasure in rediscovering this amazing band of the 90s.
She Hangs Brightly then—it’s almost as good as So Tonight really. Some might even prefer it. Hope Sandoval sounds just a touch more girlish here, a little less the sultry, smoky diva of subsequent releases. But the music here is pretty much the same kind of thing. Throughout Mazzy Star songs I often hear riffs or sections that sound really familiar, like, ripped straight from the classics, but my recall is so poor I can never quite place them.
Halah… tambourine, strummed three chord guitar, deep bass and Hope Sandoval’s gorgeous “gauzy voice” (courtesy of The Quietus) singing a sad break-up song, her lover’s leaving. She does ‘forlorn’ better than anyone, especially with that southern Californian drawl of hers, as in “I want you to hold on to things that you said / Baby I wish I was dead…/ … / Before I close the door / I need to hear you say goodbye / Baby won’t you change your mind.” Simple pop song really, but rich and sumptuous. Lovely slow instrumental bridge. Sandoval’s voice means everything in this song. She’s able to render it in any direction with such skilfully smooth transitions. Her phrasing and timing with the music is near perfect, one of her strong points. And yet … they make it sound so simple.
Blue Flower… heavy distorted electric guitars, tribal drumming, bashed tambourine, more spirited vocal from Sandoval this time, perhaps because she’s the one doing the breaking up here. This time the dude is too cold. “Nothing seems to bring you down / It’s not that cool when I’m around / Flower in the morning rain / Dying in my hands / Was it all in vain? / Superstar in your own private movie / I wanted just a minor part / But I’m no fool / I know you’re cool / I never really wanted your heart.” Then we get the instrumental break, and again, the song sounds incredibly simple. It reminds me a lot of Galaxie 500 here, the same kind of jangling electric guitar swamped in distortion and echo. Great tune. Powerful stuff. There’s something incredibly familiar about the whole Mazzy Star ethos, as though you’ve heard all these songs before. Come to think of it, this song (their first single) is a cover from Slapp Happy, an experimental German group dating back to 1972.
Ride It On… back to just acoustic guitar with Sandoval singing forlorn again. Some kind of tambourine sound tinkling away in the background. Many of the lyrics start with the line “Ride it on baby,” though it’s hard to say quite what she means, “I only wanna be with you / I’m dreamin you’re going far / And you lie, take and whine / Won’t you ride it on baby / But you’re so heavy for the price.” Okay, so er … another break up song. Quite mellow in feel despite the insistent strumming. Another pleasant, almost-familiar tune. I guess she’s trying to tell the guy to chill out, to take it easy, to let it all happen naturally, “Ride it on baby / I only wanna be with you.” Perhaps he’s jealous. Hey if a girl with that voice was my girlfriend I would be too.
She Hangs Brightly… oh man this song rules. Organ, lots of steel pedal notes spiraling away in the background, disappearing like shooting stars, sort of a druggy, doomy type vibe. The structure is very simple, it’s really just the same thing repeated over, Sandoval’s vocal is mixed more into the music here, and her voice sort of merges into the surrounding echo. The drumming is a major feature of the song. Reminds me of the Doors with that heavy swamp rock vibe. Song fragments, almost falls apart, drum beat becomes erratic, those shooting star pedal steel notes keep firing off in the background. I’d say this is my favourite on Side One. Lyrics seems to be about getting swamped down, pulled down inside something, “It stays down / Sour and true / Lies of lovin’ / The story’s true.” Lyrics are very vague, only hinting obliquely at something dark. The song’s long, it gets quite violent, noisy, wild and freeform toward the end, the organ ups its key a notch to something piercing. Druggy and squally. This is just beautiful. Much credit to Dave Roback for his awesome talents too.
I’m Sailin… is real down and out country blues sounding stuff. “I’m sailin / Sailin / Place I’ve never seen / That’s way down south / Sweet ol’ new Orleans / ‘Cause my hometown friends / Treat me awfully mean.” The song has a familiar twelve bars blue feel with strummed chords and all sorts of warbly twisted pedal steel notes. Old school blues: “Now it’s rainin’ / It’s rainin’ / The wind’s blowing cold / Lord, I thought I heard / My train whistle blow.” Just read that Sandoval came from a Mexican/American family and grew up in California, but where did she get that voice from? No wonder all the indie boys and girls fall in love. It’s otherworldly. Sometimes it almost sounds too easy for her, like perhaps she could put a little more energy into it, or vary her voice every now and then, but that would have to come at the cost of her cool factor. So it’s ennui all the way, baby. One can’t imagine she’d have much of a sense of humour. Bit vampy, bit serious. Maybe she frightened all those boys off, ergo this next song…
Give You My Lovin… a repeated arpeggio figure, tambourine, crystal clear drum beat, lovely, dreamy electric guitar. Is this all starting to sound repetitive? They pretty much use the same kind of sound on every song, but you can’t help digging its laidback sleepy sumptuous beauty. You could listen to this stuff forever. Get lost inside it. Makes you desire. Makes you afraid you’re gonna forget you’ve got your own life to get on with. Here Sandoval sounds a little obsessed: “See you in places / I’m following you / You’ll be upstairs / And I’ll be there too / Everywhere you go I will follow,” and then “Oh babe, I need you so bad / Oh babe, I only wanna make you glad.” I can’t imagine there’d be too many guys upset at being stalked by Hope Sandoval.
Be My Angel… has more energy, a grubby sounding grungy guitar, tambourine, dirty little plucked notes swirling away and disappearing. The lyrics are recited in a kind of poetic monotone. The chorus: “Just be my angel / If you love me / Be my angel / In the night / Be my angel / ‘Cause you need me / Be my angel and treat me right.” Even when the tune is slight, as in this song, it hardly matters because the vibe overrules everything. This goes a little Beatles at the end.
Taste Of Blood… is another personal favourite after ‘She Hangs Brightly’ and ‘Blue Flower.’ An insistent rhythmic guitar, a pots and pans kind of beat. The guitar rhythm has a kind of whimsy about it, really repetitive, with little steel string notes skewering out of the mix. Quite a ‘raw’ acoustic sound here — it sounds ‘live.’ Even Sandoval’s lines are tossed off as if she’s making up words on the spot. “Red, oh red / The taste of blood on lips of wine.” After the last line, the guitarist ramps up the pressure a few notches, the drummer too, and the noise factor builds and builds until we start to get that swamp feel again. Countryish twangs, a real loose feel. Some distorted chords, bent notes, mid-tempo powerful drumbeat, wild strumming, getting messier, freer. Yes, dark and vampiric.
Ghost Highway… has this classic rhythmic thing, like I’m sure it’s completely ripped off something, but damn, I can’t place it. Maybe it’s that Indian tabla kind of feel. “You’re a ghost on the highway / And I love you forever / Ghost on the highway / And I love you forever / Forever and ever / And ever and ever.” The vibe is heavy and repetitive, and the song just starts getting dirtier and nastier, harder, pounding, churning distortion, squealing notes, graunchy chords, and this huge sky-bursting kind of organ riff in the middle that also sounds familiar. Another great number, almost up there with ‘She Hangs Brightly.’
Free… a lot of echo effect on Sandoval’s vocal here, rhythmic guitar, lots of pedal steel notes, and … well, yeah, already Mazzy Star are not afraid to repeat themselves on their first album. Again, those pedal steel parts, organ lines, or whatever, are all over the show, just raining down like showering sparks in a dark night sky, all over a warbly humming Hammond organ part. Sandoval does the poetry thing again here, not really ‘singing’ a tune so much as chanting. Not really sure what she’s singing about, other than the last line which sort of gives it away, “I’m not afraid to say I was wrong / I was wrong.”
Before I Sleep… is slow, just three electric guitar chords being strummed behind Sandoval’s vocal. Then this bizarre kind of rubbed cello jabbing between the guitar chords. The instrumentation doesn’t change until near the end, the cello and guitar play together before fading out. It’s quite short. An odd ditty thrown on the end, something about lies and truth, not believing him, and realizing she’s wasting her time being with him, but perhaps helpless to do anything about it. It’s nice with the cello but it sort of feels tacked on the end.
As far as debut albums go, this has got it in spades. An entire ready-made aesthetic, a sound all their own, a vibe and willingness to plough their own furrow, unconcerned perhaps about commercial success, and they would continue this direction on their lovely follow-up So Tonight That I Might See. Of course the musicianship is just as important as the vocals to this sound – if it had been Hope Sandoval singing over top of say a folky guitar strum she wouldn’t have sounded half as cool. ‘Sultry diva’ – it’s a cliché, but sometimes you just gotta resort. Wish I’d discovered this back in 1990.