Graded on a Curve: Mazzy Star,
Seasons Of Your Day

If it seems like the nonce is very ripe for ‘90s-era comebacks, Mazzy Star’s Seasons Of Your Day easily transcends the predictability of this phenomenon. Rather than shaping up like a quickly conceived money-grab or a time-filler for middle-aged bored dudes, its ten tracks are sourced from across the group’s long sojourn from the public eye, and it’s a very strong inclusion into their already significant body of work.

She Hangs Brightly, Mazzy Star’s debut album from way in back in 1990, has stood the test of time exceptionally well, but as a very good disc it also didn’t register as the inaugural offering from an act that was going to be sticking around for a while. This was partially due to vocalist Hope Sandoval having replaced Kendra Smith in Opal, the locale from whence Mazzy Star had sprung. While the resemblance between She Hangs Brightly and Opal was surely distinct, the record’s pleasures also gave no indication that it would differ from guitarist David Roback’s prior background.

To elaborate, Roback’s tenure in his previous outfits, specifically Paisley Underground cornerstone Rain Parade and the all-star cover-song project Rainy Day, wasn’t exactly noted for longevity. His involvement with the former ended after one LP, ‘83’s terrific Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, and the latter’s sole self-titled ’84 effort was by design a very sweet one-off. Likewise Opal, while having subsequently amassed a fairly hefty posthumous discography, only released one full-length, ‘87’s excellent Happy Nightmare Baby, before Smith up and quit the band.

While it may seem odd from this distance, when Mazzy Star first announced their presence, they were widely considered as simply being the latest incarnation of Roback’s estimable thing. This is not to belittle Sandoval’s contribution, which on She Hangs Brightly is of course immediately striking, but only to underline that Roback had acquired a substantial rep as a major participant in the whole Paisley Underground scenario. And by 1990, this movement certainly seemed to be winding down.

Instead of connecting like a first album, She Hangs Brightly held a definite air of summation about it, or at least it was such for many of us who approached it with full awareness of the guitar player’s previous activity. Indeed, much of the music solidly reinforced the perception of the record as a casual, veteran statement that evolved from, and in numerous ways extended, his motions in Opal.

Opening with “Halah,” a delightful piece of downhearted strum-pop that remains one of Mazzy Star’s signature tunes, it also followed it up with a cover of a song by UK cult art-rockers Slapp Happy, and if Sandoval brought the smoldering air of a moody chanteuse to the disc’s whole, the effort still progressed like a psychedelically situated one-off.

But She Hangs Brightly did gather a strong following from listeners who knew little or nothing of Roback’s other work, growing into a modest alternative “hit” in the process. And the closure of the American branch of Mazzy Star’s label Rough Trade might’ve derailed its momentum somewhat, but getting quickly cherry-picked by the watchful eyes of Capitol Records helped restore their unexpected good fortune.

Under Capitol’s aegis, Mazzy Star’s 1993 follow-up So Tonight That I Might See became one of the ‘90s more unlikely pop successes, with this stature directly based on the single “Fade into You”’s modest (it didn’t break the US Top Forty, peaking at #44) but still surely impressive and refreshingly non-faddish sales figures. But much more important was the LP’s revelation of Mazzy Star as a fully-developed creative entity.

Combining the methodically paced psych-tinged guitar excursions of Roback and the perpetually underrated and thoroughly non-egocentric drumming of Keith Mitchell to Sandoval’s extraordinary maturity as a vocalist/lyricist, So Tonight That I Might See endures as square one for any newbie curious into what Mazzy Star is really all about. And if they dig that one, the group’s ’96 follow-up Among My Swan is the next logical point of investigation.

That LP resulted in no hit singles but it did reveal the band as masters of their very specific personal sound. Languid but not lethargic and dreamy while firmly rooted in a warm blend of pop, folk, and those psych-sourced at times even rock-suggestive atmospherics, Among My Swan found them doing what came natural and in the process registering like nobody else on the scene at the time.

And then shortly afterward Mazzy Star ceased to function as an active unit, and not due to intra-band conflicts but reportedly because of dissatisfaction, particularly in the part of Sandoval, over recording for a major label (though somewhat paradoxically, she’s been the most active in the interim, heading up her band the Warm Inventions for a pair of LPs, though notably not in contract with major companies.) In listening to their Capitol discs, it’s not hard to understand the friction. If the group’s music was openly accessible to the ear, it certainly retained its legitimacy as a product of the underground.

For scores of folks, “Fade into You” and So Tonight That I Might See are the only things they know of Mazzy Star, but the tune’s unlikely success was at least in some part damaging to the band, ramping up expectations from inside the executive suite for a repeat retail performance; along with the song’s accomplishment, the album more impressively went platinum. When that didn’t happen, the inevitable meddling apparently resulted, and anybody with an ear sympathetic to Mazzy Star’s recordings should understand why front office interference would be anathema to their approach.

That’s part of why Seasons of Your Day, a release that took nearly seventeen years to appear and that features tracks derived from across that span, is such a pleasant surprise; it just offers up ten selections of what they do and it finds them doing it nearly as well as they ever did it before. And that “nearly” isn’t indicative of any ascertainable faults on the part of group, but mainly one of overall impact.

While it may seem an inappropriate expectation for an act so deeply committed to a slow-floating, dreamlike aesthetic, Seasons of Your Day simply hits the synapses with less intensity than their two prior efforts did. But as the songs progress, this level of forcefulness becomes slight enough that it’s a safe prognostication that their fan base will welcome it with open arms. And the album’s long gestation also sets up an interesting symmetry to their extant discography.

If their first two recs each offered a cover tune amongst the originals, with So Tonight That I Might See tackling Arthur Lee’s composition “Five String Serenade,” a gesture that couples well with She Hangs Brightly’s Slapp Happy ditty, Among My Swan occasioned the arrival of guest contributors for the first time via the guitar of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s William Reid on “Take Everything” (though we really shouldn’t leave out the drums of Aaron Sherer on the same cut, since he played in the short-lived ‘80’s post-punk outfit Psi-Com with a pre-Jane’s Addiction Perry Farrell.)

Continuing this circumstance is Seasons of Your Day’s inclusion of the late and very great UK guitarist Bert Jansch on the track “Spoon.” And like just about every decision made in accord with this group’s recording process, this guest spot, as does the guitar of My Bloody Valentine/Warm Inventions member Colm Ó Cíosóig elsewhere on the album, integrates seamlessly into the whole, lacking the attention-seeking credibility-servicing aura that often rises when some notable name infiltrates the studio to moonlight on the LPs of other acts.

This is to say that Mazzy Star fans that don’t know Bert Jansch from Bert Convy won’t be left scratching their noggins over any disruptive musical additives. With this crew it’s all about the unbroken aura of a relaxing yet emotionally resonant mood, and Seasons of Your Day achieves this goal with nary a creative hiccup.

But interestingly, “In the Kingdom” is the most um, energetic opener they’ve produced since their debut’s “Halah,” though one that doesn’t break with the textural attitudes of their last pair of long-players. Featuring organ and vibes amongst an instrumental scenario that’s almost sprightly, the tune is a gorgeous little nugget that serves as an inviting doorway into a very familiar room.

The nine songs that comprise the expansiveness (and likewise, the boundaries) of that living space are also executed with all the assurance of their last two records; even with its long period of gestation, Seasons of Your Day’s sense of focus is readily apparent. The fabric here, shaped in manner dissimilar from the far quicker evolution of their earlier stuff, doesn’t feel stitched together from various odds and ends.

And this might seem to complicate the hypothesized equilibrium of their releases somewhat, with this new one not being particularly reminiscent of She Hangs Brightly (outside of “In the Kingdom”’s qualities, perhaps), but in very subtly standing apart from what’s been produced before, Mazzy Star has actually completed a quartet of albums that if separated into chronological halves, can be appreciated on roughly equal terms.

After numerous listens, this disc’s attentiveness to folk and even bluesy environments, if not a startling sprint for new sonic pastures, makes it far more than any kind of carbon copy of past glories. In terms of the former there’s “California,” a very nice piece of drifting strum that’s followed up by “I’ve Got to Stop,” a superb hunk of slow burning (and yes, unhurriedly moving) earthy rock motion that should please folks into post-bike wreck Dylan.

“Does Somebody Have Your Baby Now” extends these folk properties and blends in some terrific and tastefully blues-like slide work from Roback. On the subject of tasteful, Mazzy Star continues to prove that refinement doesn’t always equate to the sophisto, or negatively, to the milquetoast. And Sandoval’s performance across the record is typically well-rendered. She’s especially good on “Common Burn,” a song which gradually unwraps as a mildly-psychedelic mediation perfectly situated for one of those next-morning comedowns that often follow on the heels of a really intense night.

While the title track might initially register as almost Mazzy Star by numbers, the surfacing of some chamber-folk strings does add an air of distinctiveness. Likewise the pedal steel on “Flying Low,” if not exactly intended to burn down any honky-tonks, also brings a swell bit of unforced country flavor to the folk ambience.

And at the outset, another helping of Roback’s slide shapes “Sparrow” into an uncommonly gentle folk-blues zone (at moments, the guitarist flirts with a tone suggestive of John Fahey’s early Vanguard work, though a case can also be made for late-‘60s Keith Richards), but then a harpsichord shows up, prettifying things considerably and in as natural a manner as the pedal-steel’s emergence on “Flying Low.”

Unsurprisingly, Jansch’s participation on “Spoon” shapes it into a very appetizing string tangle that’s also one of Seasons of Your Day’s more appreciably intense selections. And closer, “Lay Myself Down” saves the biggest plunge into the rock climes for last, combining electric slide of ample bluesy grit to Sandoval’s voice, smoky and distressingly calm as ever, and gusts of her spot-on harmonica blowing. Furthermore, drummer Mitchell is at his very best here, though it’s understatement to describe him as being consistently on the money throughout.

As per the norm, by the third song on this rec Mazzy Star has weeded out the supporters from those possessing shoulder-shrugging indifference. Frankly, that’s one of their best attributes. And while any record from a veteran band that takes over a decade and a half to appear will be burdened with the appellation of comeback, Seasons of Your Day is ultimately a much different state of affairs.

Issued on their own label Rhymes of An Hour, it reassembles a group that never should have splintered in the first place, and displays a surplus of inspiration and cohesion. Roback has mentioned a bounty of additional material that’s just sitting in the can waiting to be released. Based upon the quality of what’s here, measures should be taken to wax it up very soon.


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