Saturday, February 2, 2013

Crystal and Cheap

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Opal, Happy Nightmare Baby. I never cared much about the fashion or gender politics of glam rock; it was the sounds on some of those early Bowie and T-Rex albums that riveted my attention. Specifically, I loved the way the distorted electric guitars were used, growling and crunching and purring along with coiled menace but never dominating the sound; these weren't arena-rock axes but tigers on a leash. On Bowie's "Queen Bitch," for instance, acoustic and electric guitars play alongside each other, in a balance only possible if the former is miked and the latter turned down somewhere below 11.

I guess Opal wasn't a glam-rock outfit, technically, but David Roback's layered electric-guitar sound, scaled to be both expansive and economical, was like that "Queen Bitch" sound extrapolated into a whole spidery, crawling soundscape. What he, with drummer Keith Mitchell and bassist Kendra Smith, create is less a wall of sound than a floor of sound, over which Smith's spacey vocals and Roback's spiky keyboards float, dance, roll out, contract. It's seductive music, with a junkie-blues/Velvets underpinning that makes it more alluring to me than the head-spinning whorls of My Bloody Valentine or the pop-plus-distortion of Jesus and Mary Chain.

They made a fine EP or two before this that are endearingly direct, almost folksy, but 1987's Happy Nightmare Baby sounded to me like the arrival of a major band. They soon disbanded; Roback went on to the altogether pleasant but less compelling Mazzy Star, and Kendra Smith released a decent but unremarkable solo album. But they left behind this modestly massive, low-flying six-string clusterbomb, and little explosions still go off every time I spin it.

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