Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Opal: Early Recordings

Like most people besotted with something or someone, I've lost the perspective necessary to determine whether my aesthetic judgments might be replicated by a wider audience. But I'll try to convey why this long-out-of-print album has been on my heavy rotation for years.

This is one of those right place, right time kind of things. The singer, Kendra Smith, had played bass for Dream Syndicate, which sucked. After Opal, she went on to make a couple of solo records, the content of which ranged from the tolerable to the execrable. A clue to the nature of their awfulness: her first solo album was named The Guild of Temporal Adventurers. David Roback, Opal's guitarist, had previously played for Rain Parade-- which, I might add, sucked. He followed Opal with Mazzy Star, which (as you probably know) was a colossally boring, pretentious drone-folk outfit with a few nice tunes. Of course, their big hit was the ubiquitous "Fade Into You," which achieved some kind of milestone of incongruity by appearing in the movie Starship Troopers.

So this is a classic case of two musicians with unfortunate tendencies holding each other in check. Not quite Lennon-McCartney, but they did make one hell of an album in Early Recordings. Roback pulled Smith back from the precipice of ridiculous Nicoesque mysticism and theatricality (she even nicked the pump organ thing in her solo career). Meanwhile, Smith breathed some life into Roback's dull folky dirges.

Opal differed from most groups who idolize the Velvets in that they were good. Upon hearing the words "psychedelic folk," most right-thinking people will cringe and throw brickbats. And usually I'd be right there with you, my face twisted with rage and hatred, a Molotov cocktail in my hand. But just hold on now. Just hold on. How can I put this? Take the lyrics. To my mind, lyrics rarely improve a song; they usually only cripple it. Here, as a dedicated hater of New Agey bullshit, I can firmly attest that the lyrics do not cripple the music. Faint praise-- and I now realize I'm not going to be able to convey exactly why I love this album-- but look who we're dealing with here; it could have been really bad. The lyrics are willfully simple, intentionally banal, allowing the words to fade into the background until the odd haunting line rears its head.

Early Recordings grew on me (it does not immediately grab one's attention), and now I simply never tire of it. With most of my musical obsessions, such as that for Pavement, I occasionally require time off to recharge my enthusiasm. Not the case with this album. Look, I'll describe it, so you have some flavor of what I'm talking about, but I won't be able to really convince you. This is why I'm not a music critic. This and the self-respect.

You've got train obsession ("Northern Line" namechecks the folkie ballad "The Wreck of the Old 97" and Opal also had previously covered Elizabeth Cotton's "Freight Train"). You've got beautiful, simple tunes ("My Only Friend," "Fell From the Sun," "Strange Delight"). You've got loopy faux-country guitar work ("She's a Diamond," "Harriet Brown"). You've got "Venus In Furs"-like funeral marches with lazy, melodic vocals from Smith ("Brigit on Sunday"). And you've got my vote for one of the most beautiful songs of all time, "Grains of Sand."

Oh, it's good, so good. Hey, Rough Trade: reissue it. I have no idea why this should be out of print and incredibly scarce, when the vastly inferior Happy Nightmare Baby, their official album release, is available on the market. It's probably exposure to Happy Nightmare Baby that prevents more people from seeking out Early Recordings.