Mazzy Star, Among My Swan, 1996

When this came out in 96 I was working in an independent record store with a university nearby and a large base of student-customers. Mazzy Star were a big thing so we had great expectations for Among My Swan, expectations that were slowly dashed as the realization dawned that it wasn’t really an album of tunes. Revisiting it on vinyl in late 2011 I found it to be a pleasant enough listen but even after multiple spins, the tunes failed to catch. In fact the whole album seems to be one slow winding down—it gets increasingly soporific as it progresses. So yes, it’s a much more mellow affair than its predecessors (which is really saying something). One can’t tell whether the Mazters were merely fulfilling a contract, whether they wanted to strip it back to something simpler, or whether they’d simply run out of ideas. Revisionism has been kind. Their mazzy star has only brightened in the past 16 years but as one who was there in 96 and remembers, I don’t think Among My Swan won them any new fans.

However, I never really paid it much attention the first time around. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately and find I can only go about three songs before I get distracted, my thoughts start to drift. I would say it makes great background music, but what does that mean? It means that I’m a fan who doesn’t want to slag them off. “Great background music” is basically saying it’s boring, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. It’s nice enough, great Mazzy vibe as always, beautifully recorded, some half-decent tunes, which ironically makes it an album that perhaps only rewards with close listening. On So Tonight That I Might See, I noted that certain ‘filler’ tracks held up the better tracks like cement, but here, the balance is out of whack. Side Two, I think, is where things to start to get dire. But hey, it may even be something as simple as say two tracks too many, or a poorly selected running order. Spin the black circle, Bumstead and let the real-time listening decide…

Disappear… opens with low very fuzzy chords over which warble some lovely clean lead guitar improv. That guitar part warbles throughout the song almost as if the part hasn’t been written and it’s the best thing about the song. The rhythm is all rather monotonous. Sandoval barely raises her voice out of the same key. Her voice drifts through the song, something about, “No I can’t disappear.” There’s a tambourine of course, bells, xylophones, and lots of quiet background fuzz. The song doesn’t really have a memorable tune but it’s still quite a beautiful thing to listen to. There are parts where Sandoval mumbles her words so much it might as well be a foreign language.

Flowers In December… is one of the strongest songs in this set. Just a soft acoustic guitar, tambourine-in-time, keyboard part, lovely violin and crystal clear harmonica on the chorus giving this a campfire feel. The vocal is also played up front here, a soft sad sounding thing, the usual fare, a post-break up analysis song. “They say every man goes blind in his heart / They say everybody steals somebody’s heart away / And I’ve been wondering why you let me down / And I’ve been taking it all for granted.”  I suppose this comes closest to the majesty of “Fade Into You,” especially with the violin part, a nice touch, but even then, the tune here is a slight thing.

Rhymes Of An Hour… with a desolate, waifish ghost-like vocal barely enunciating the words over a few bass notes and a gurgling repetitive line on electric guitar, Hope Sandoval sounds like she’s barely there. Some kind of faint whine bleeds in from the background. Bleak but with a touch of warmth. Ironically the first words to the song are, “Cannot hear what they’re saying,” which is kind of how I feel about most of her lyrics. Phrases like “lie and sleep / under deep” and the “cold winter waiting” all conjure up some kind of subdued, depressive atmosphere, though not claustrophobic. More like a moody turning away, like someone you love who won’t communicate with you. The song barely changes, if at all, continuing on with a droney vibe, though the violin at the end is a nice touch. Not much to get excited about here though.

Cry, Cry… has a country flavour with its drifting pedal steel guitar. Again, the vocal is so light, it sounds like she’s floating away through the night sky, a night where the Milky Way is visible and there’s one star up there moving through all the others, visible only by dint of its trajectory. While somewhere beyond the fields, beyond the river, a girl cries. The pretty but melancholy lead guitar line warbles through some processed effects like water. Sandoval sings, “I drove my car into the city lights / Drove down the road I am on now.” I do like the guitar part in this, it’s really quite weird, and that is perhaps the key to enjoying this record—listening out for the soft delicate nuanced touches. Not big on tunes but there’s certainly a lot of thought gone into the textures of these songs.

Take Everything… a warm acoustic guitar strums behind Sandoval’s lonesome hushed faded out vocal, “Take everything / Fake everything / Save everything about me.” There’s a few chord changes and the melody unwinds gently through the chorus. In the break, a distorted guitar joins in to add some heavier texture and quickly all the instruments are brought into the mix, the volume and pressure increases, pedal steel again. Nice tune, a very forlorn vocal. Mazzy Star lyrics were always quite oblique and poetic, water colours, hints of emotions, but here even more so, to the point that she’s almost ‘saying’ nothing, but merely turning her voice into instrument, not like say Enya, but the words—the words are like notes and chords and riffs, disparate, evoking dead or failing relationships.

Still Cold… as in the title of this song. Here we have the moonlight, driving cars at night again, and someone who is “still cold like the stars.” The drummer’s part, delicate and nuanced though it is, is more to the fore here, a complex, fiddly rhythm, some power chords cutting through the song after the first minute. Barely discernable tune though. Lots of nice guitar work from Roback, as always, but they feel like miniature jams. Everything here is sort of ‘miniature.’ Small hideaway songs that are more like sound-sculpting than songs. “You used to say your heart felt like a stone / Now everything you ever wanted / is your own.” Dude gets dissed. Those distorted guitars get more frenetic and louder while at the same time the volume fades them all away.

All Your Sisters… reinvigorates interest with its crystal clear guitar opening, and Sandoval’s vocal back up front in the mix, a bit of echo and floatiness to her voice. The violin whines in, joins the guitar to entangle around each other like limbs. No bass or drums here. “All your sisters wanna fly / Around my golden sky,” whispers Sandoval. And “Just because you feel hollow inside / It’s real,” then “I’m gonna put something in you / Make the devil feel surprised.” Hmm, chantreuse Sandoval plays voodoo poet wraith, sensitive, serious, meaningful. “And I knew I was close to you.” This is quietly beautiful. “Catch me flying in the sun / Catch me drinking / Of your wine.”  Yes, this is one of those “may you never recover from the lightness of my touch” type songs.

I’ve Been Let Down… brings back the jaunt, the pony ride, the clip clop, and a sacrifice: “And I’m still coming round for you.” Just acoustic strum, soft bass and Sandoval’s feather soft voice. “Catch a train on a silver afternoon / A thousand miles and I’m getting there too soon / Take me there when I should be going home / Tell me why I’m still feeling all alone.” The harmonica takes up the space when the singer dies down. A lightness-of-being sort of song, as Sandoval sings that despite being let down and put down she’s still coming round for you. A modern update on the “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes” theme. Song fades out. A very slight tune. Too subtle?

Roseblood… whines in on a backwards-recorded rhythm, distant fuzz guitar and a strange sound like a fuzzy organ which is probably a guitar, I can’t tell. It all sounds pretty cool though, like one of those doomy textural tracks off So Tonight. Despite having the lyrics in front of me, I can’t fathom what the song is really about. Some girl who has “slices in her hands” and “secrets in her lipstick mouth.” More backwards guitars in the middle of the song. The rhythm though is a constant drone. Again, lots of faint minute detail in the way the feedback and distortion is used. I’m starting to think of Among My Swan as headphone music. It’s finally starting to leave it’s impression on me, but only in the moment. There’s no vapour trail, or perhaps there’s only vapour trail. These songs are what’s left after the supersonic jet’s already on the other side of the world.

Happy… is hardly happy sounding stuff either. More distorted guitars, but quiet, and another fairly tuneless vocal, the sodding tambourine slapped against her thigh and then those bells. This is what I mean about filler. This song merely sounds like an amalgamation of several of the others rearranged. Even the lyrics are the same old thing: “Cold outside / Burns a great big hole in my heart … / Sleep inside.” Talk about an ambivalent sounding album. It grows and dies, and I waver.

Umbilical… uses an amniotic fluid organ line, a very slow soft drumbeat, warbly Boards of Canada-like keyboard lines, and one of those Sandoval poem-songs where she talks the lyrics, only this time it’s almost whispered, and barely audible. You certainly can’t make out the words. It starts to get weird and spooky, far off notes trailing sparks, a swampy doomy vibe very much like those doomy ones on the previous album, only this is like the Polaroid negative, an image left on the retina, an echo of those earlier numbers. The lyrics (after finding them online) are all about being in the womb, and complete happiness and death and walking in sunlight. Something about a mother’s belly and a sister. Druggy.

Look On Down From The Bridge… deep organ, hymnal, almost out of tune again, a light slow beat, very much an end-of-album song. “Look on down from the bridge / It’s still raining up here / Everybody seems so far away from me.” And then “Just gone / I’m just gone / How could I say goodbye.” So, a death lament, an elegy. Very mournful and quiet, that organ hums all the way through, a lonesome guitar note joins here and there, and Sandoval’s dispirited vocal.

This had me lost until I finally came to terms with its ambivalence. This is unassuming, quietly affecting stuff. It is what it is, soft, drowsy, sleeping music, lonesome cry-yourself-to-sleep candlelight music, goodbye music. The tunes are slight because the songs don’t want to be remembered. They only want to be heard in the moment. As for Mazzy Star, a new album in the not-too-distant future? Here’s hoping.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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