In the Shadows of the Spotlight
Out of all the alternative-music crossover successes of the early-to-mid-'90s, Mazzy Star are, in many ways, the strangest. At the opposite end of the spectrum to the sludgy dissonance of grunge, the music made by David Roback and Hope Sandoval was free from distortion, free from self-loathing, and built around an unending sense of 'space.'
Roback had been working on the very fringes of rock music for a decade before Mazzy Star ever came along. He started out alongside his brother Steven, in the psychedelic-rock combo Rain Parade, one of the leading lights of LA's paisley underground scene of the early-'90s. He then moved onto Opal, whose turgid, slow-burning, séances summoned the insistent gloom of heroin-chic pin-up Nico.
Mazzy Star were the logical next step in that musical progression: Roback creating slow, spare, sad, strung-out songs heavy on the mood; all droning organs and brushed drums and languorous, dangling notes of psychedelic guitar. Sandoval, standing still out the front, singing solemn incantations in a doleful voice; less singing than simply, monotonously exhaling her lyrics.
They sound like a band for the stoned, music for the midnight hour, a band walking a wonky line between melancholia and torpor. Perhaps, indeed, they are that band. So, then, how strange it indeed was when So Tonight That I Might See, the second LP for Mazzy Star, went platinum. What was it that took this near-slowcore take on narcotic country to the ears of a million listeners?
It Took Just One Hit
In short: "Fade into You." The album's opening and most famous song became a sleeper hit, picking up radio-station plays, long-distance dedications, and MTV spins for its suitably moody black-and-white video. One of Roback's most glorious productions, the song is built on acoustic-guitar strums and lusty tambourine shakings, but as it pirouettes its way through some wondrous lovesong dust-bowl, it grows richer with every turn: chiming piano chords, crackles of overdriven guitar, and proud slide-guitar licks. Once "Fade into You" starts, it rarely varies; this constancy evoking the slow, rolling landscapes and lulling monotony of the highway.
For some of the million who bought So Tonight That I Might See back in the golden age of the compact-disc, Mazzy Star may've been some one-hit wonder. But, in reality, it's a record rich with plenty of sprawling, slow-motion songs; from the thunderous psychedelic squalls and barely-murmured spoken-word of its title-track, to the solemn, soundtrack-friendly meditation of "Into Dust," in which hesitant guitar finger-picking and smoldering viola are all the dressing Sandoval's commandingly-inert vocal needs.
The success of the single, and the album itself, found Mazzy Star portrayed as some sort of middle-aged café-music specialists, but there's a dark, depressive current that gives these sad ballads a caustic taint. Roback and Sandoval were, themselves, clearly uncomfortable with the success they stumbled into, too: after 1996's Among My Swan, they vanished to a state of semi-permanent hiatus.
Record Label: Capitol
Release Date: 5 October 1993