in Frieze | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

Mazzy Star

Among my Swan, EMI/Parlophone

in Frieze | 04 MAR 97

The twelve tracks of Among My Swan (1996) are steeped in an intense languor: drum beats just make it on time, guitar chords seem to be produced at the cost of extreme effort and the vocal and harmonica parts are exhaled as if from almost empty lungs. The music is not imprecise; it is simply that everything is controlled, suffused with an extreme reticence. Only the minimum number of instruments are employed to create a song structure, and when melody lines appear their phrasing is stripped down to just a handful of notes of which every one is essential. This sparsity is emphasised by the mikeing of the instruments: the simpler they are, the closer the mike - you are inside the soundbox of the guitar, right up against the bass amp with Hope Sandoval almost whispering in your ear. Conversely, the more complex passages - like the distorted guitar haze on Roseblood - are pushed right back in the mix and presented at a level of volume inverse to their level of complexity, as a kind of furious underlying ambience.

This minimalism has the effect of stripping away everything inessential, leaving not the pedestrian and predictable, but a basic structure that implies complexity and a desire for completion, almost forcing the listener to fill in the gaps. At any given moment, there is so little quantitatively going on that the music feels in danger of disintegrating altogether. Enormous self-discipline is required to maintain the space that perforates the music, and the result is a structure that seems tocontain all possible elaborations within it. This is reflected equally in the lyrics: words to songs, as we all know, generally die when written down, but here the distinction between the written and spoken word is pushed to breaking point. It seems as if there are only about 50 different words sung over the whole twelve tracks - 50 everyday, banal, over-familiar, empty words. In songs like All Your Sisters, there is an almost total separation between the extreme flatness of the lyrics and the extraordinary inflections used by Sandoval to extricate meaning from them. As if to emphasise the literal emptiness of language, she frequently repeats lines, giving them a different phrasing and changing their meaning as if she were flipping a shot fabric in the light.

The track I've Been Let Down that immediately follows All Your Sisters, slips into a kind of Country and Western malaise, which suggests that it is not only the banalities of language and instrumen-tation that are being twisted and reconfigured, but musical genres in themselves. The atmosphere is set with the most basic of acoustic guitar sequences and a three note harmonica break between verses. The clichéd persona of the hard-done-by woman that Sandoval assumes on this song is dissected the same as everything else, but is transformed into a structure that is still able to bear new meaning, despite the staleness of the genre it absorbs.

There is a retrospective element in much of this play with styles. The 70s folksy quality of All Your Sisters articulates something that has been looming over the previous half-dozen tracks. It is hard to say exactly what it is, but it is distinctly anti-urban and somehow deeply introverted and distancing in respect of the listener. It's a quality that has cropped up elsewhere recently: in the Sneaker Pimps' cover version of Britt Ekland's come-hither-and-fuck-me song from Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973). In the film, Ekland sings her ballad of seduction from the bedroom next to that of a hapless police officer, the representative of mainland normality, knowing that he cannot respond to his own desire and can never become a part of the isolated island community to which she belongs.

Sandoval directs her voice at the listener in a strangely similar way. There is absolutely no possibility of being allowed to identify with the 'you' of the lyrics or to ever really believe that they are directed at anyone outside the world of Mazzy Star. This aloofness and decentralised atmosphere is evoked as much by the black and white photographs of the band on the album's inside cover. They are pictured outdoors, never looking at the camera, with a kind of snapshot nonchalance. The setting is somewhere in the countryside but not nowhere: there are screens of hedges and trees that enclose the world inside them; there's a clapboard house and light filtered through dusty glass; it's always cloudy. Behind all the imagery and introversion, there is a suggestion that this environment, the music and the people who make it belong to something far more important, more real, than the urban.

There is also a sense of nostalgia to much of the music, and it is a nostalgia for a time that Mazzy Star (and anyone else under 45) were never a part of. It is audible in particular, precise ways that slip easily in and out of tracks: in the organ passages of Umbilical, with its spoken lyrics and spartan echo-chamber background drums, in the use of discreet slide guitar and classic wah-wah and volume pedal effects, and in the overtly live mikeing of the instruments. But this is much more than the simplistic appropriations of Britpop, which lacked the discipline to really get to grips with anything other than a fuzzy sense of warmth about a fictional past. Here there is none of the identify-with-me-ness that binds a band like Oasis so irrevocably to their own time. That so many bands (and artists) should be looking back to the 60s and early 70s is perhaps not surprising at a time when 'idealism', 'belief' and 'real' experience are long gone. But while mindlessly attempting to pastiche the sound of that era is pointless, stripping it down to its core, distilling it with the degree of sophistication that Mazzy Star wields offers at least the proof that it is possible to re-invent a musical language and for it still to be able to mean something.