Saturday, January 7, 2017

Opal - Early Recordings Vol. 2 (1984-87)

This is a collection of obscure studio and live recordings by Opal, the Los Angeles-based neo-psychedelic band that was part of the Paisley Underground scene of the 1980s. It's on YouTube for streaming, but this is a high quality version with a bonus track.

Opal was primarily comprised of David Roback on guitar and vocals Kendra Smith on bass and lead vocals, but also included Suki Ewers on keyboards and Keith Mitchell on drums. Both Roback and Smith had deep roots in the Paisley Underground scene. He'd come from the Rain Parade, and she was from Dream Syndicate.

Before Opal, the pair put together the psychedelic rock band Clay Allison around 1983/1984. Clay Allison released one single, "Fell From the Sun"/"All Souls," but when the group changed its name to Opal, that was re-released under the new name. Roback and Smith also worked together on the 1984 collection of cover songs Rainy Day, where they collaborated on haunting, minimalist versions of Big Star's "Holocaust," the Buffalo Springfield's "Flying On the Ground Is Wrong," and the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror."

The studio sound they developed there -- Roback's strummed acoustic guitars and Smith's understated vocals -- formed the basis of what they would do in Opal. It was also a precursor to what Roback would later do in Mazzy Star with Hope Sandoval.

It seems hilariously appropriate that Opal never actually released a full album in its day. The group's first LP, Happy Nightmare Baby, came out in late 1987, just after Kendra Smith abruptly quit the group in the middle of a tour. Less than ten years later, Smith would disappear from the music scene (and apparently society itself) entirely, going away off to live in the wilderness.

Sandoval replaced Smith in Opal, and then the group eventually changed its name to Mazzy Star. They gained popularity as the 1990s wore on, and had considerable success with the chart hit "Fade Into You" as well as several albums.

But Opal wouldn't go away, it seems. In 1989, an collection called Early Recordings came out and brought together non-LP B-Sides, demos, and outtakes. In my estimation, it's the swirling, ethereal sound of these recordings that defined the Opal aesthetic, and that influenced a generation of future dream pop groups like Beach House and Azure Ray. Happy Nightmare Baby was a good record, but Early Recordings was something else entirely. Roback's spacey soundscapes and Smith's evocative vocals were a unique blend that added up to much more than the sum of their parts.

So it stood to reason that fans would want more.  Around 2006, a fan put a second set of early recordings together as a follow-up. It's not a legitimate release and as such doesn't have songwriting credits for most of the tracks. But it does do an excellent job of rounding up obscure recordings by this band.

Where are the songs on here from? Some of them might have been slated for a second Opal album that never materialized. The ones that feature singing by Roback instead of Kendra Smith are probably demos. There are also two live cuts here by Clay Allison. Here is some info on some of  the tracks:

"Sisters of Mercy" is a cover of a Leonard Cohen song that was originally included on his 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. "Lisa's Funeral" is taken from a live Clay Allison performance at the King Kong Club in Maryland, May 14, 1984.

"Freight Train" is a cut that appeared on Opal's "Fell From the Sun" EP that was released in the UK on Rough Trade in '85. Some copies of Early Recordings include this song as a bonus track, so I assume it was put on Early Recordings Vol. 2 to make sure everyone had it. Unfortunately, it was mastered on Vol. 2 with way too much compression and treble and sounded distorted. So I substituted the clean version from Early Recordings here and it now sounds the way it did on the original EP. It's a cover of an old song by folk-blues singer Elizabeth Cotten that's been done by quite a few performers, but rarely with the wistful pathos Roback and Smith bring to it.

"Little Bit of Rain" is a recording of a popular Fred Neil song that's also been covered by Linda Ronstadt, Karen Dalton, and Martina McBride. Neil included it on his 1965 debut album Bleecker & MacDougal.

"Cherry Jam" is probably a live performance by Clay Allison since it appears on several live bootlegs of theirs (such as the aforementioned King Kong Club show). It interpolates a variation of the riff of Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" starting at the 5:16 mark. The closing track,"Indian Summer," is Opal's loose take on the Doors song from their 1970 effort, Morrison Hotel. It's from a promo 45 released in 1987 -- a split single with Slovenly's "Enormous Critics" on the flip side.

Finally "Hear The Wind Blow" was yet another song that was included as a bonus cut on some versions of Early Recordings but left off others. Since not everyone has it, I tagged it onto the end of this set. It's a haunting Roback-Smith tune that's as indicative of the singular sound of Opal as anything they recorded.

And that's all we know. Although not as strong a collection as Early Recordings, there's enough good material here to make the case that Opal definitely would have had an impressive career had Roback and Smith stayed together.

Related posts:
The Eyes of Mind - Tales of the Turquoise Umbrella (1984)
The Things - Coloured Heaven (1984) 
The Wombats - Zontar Must Die! (1984)
The Crawling Walls - Inner Limits (1985)
Beach House - Rarities (2008-2010)

Track list:
1. My Canyon Memory
2. Sisters Of Mercy
3. Sailing Boats
4. Vespers
5. Lisa's Funeral
6. This Town
7. Freight Train
8. Wintertime
9. Little Bit Of Rain
10. What You've Done
11. Cherry Jam
12. Indian Summer
13. Hear The Wind Blow (Bonus Track)



  2. Thanks for intro-share...they got something in common w/ my own approach, esp on the project NATALIE & ME. Kendra's girlish unstudied vibratoless vocals esp on 'Sisters' reminded me lots of the Natmeister:

    i wish Opal woulda done more harmonies however [obvious if u listen to my stuff haha]