Listening to….Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions….

Not sure about the name….. sounds  a bit like some kind of new age foot-warming device that you might mistakenly have bought from a stall at the Glastonbury Festival

In fact, Los Angeles native  Hope Sandoval was formerly lead singer for Opal, who then morphed into Mazzy Star. ‘Through the devil softly’ is the first HS &TWI  album for 8 years, but rather like The Blue Nile, they seem to have a consistent approach to writing and playing that varies only slightly despite long gaps between albums.  Anyone familiar with Mazzy Star or the first Warm Inventions album from 2001 (‘Bavarian Fruit Bread’) would have no problem in picking up the stylistic thread here.  Maybe it’s me, but it does seem that there’s more acoustic guitar in evidence than previously, but I might be imagining that.

Hope Sandoval, although now well into her forties, remains the poster girl of choice for this whole sub-genre of music, often referred to as ‘shoegaze‘ because of the tendency of its practitioners to gaze down at their shoes rather than engage visually with their audience.  Hope Sandoval allegedly still has a preference for performing with a barely-lit stage, with just a little back-lighting so the players can see what they’re doing.

Hope Sandoval

What they’re doing in general is playing a fairly low-key semi-acoustic repertoire that references a whole host of influences from the Velvet Underground with Nico through Punk to Stevie Nicks, The Cocteau Twins & David Lynch soundtracks.  The mood is generally reflective and brooding, with huge amounts of reverb applied to vocals and sometimes to guitars as well.  It’s very much a music for a particular mood and Hope Sandoval and her colleagues are adept at evoking a mixture of mysticism and melancholia with lyrics often obscured by the production.

The roots of this music go back over 25 years to the ‘Paisley Underground’ movement that was based in Los Angeles and comprised a selection of bands of whom the two most effective were The Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade.  Some people also like to incorporate The Bangles into this group of bands, but although Susannah Hoffs from the Bangles had worked with the Roback Brothers from Rain Parade, The Bangles were always more about pop success than critical credibility.

  Both The Dream Syndicate & Rain Parade shared post-punk sensibilities and were keen to expand the boundaries of what they were doing.  For The Dream Syndicate this meant a fairly full-on rockist approach that carried echoes of The Doors, whilst The Rain Parade went for a more overtly psychedelic approach, aided by Will Glenn’s calliope-styled keyboards and David Roback’s Byrds-like guitar. 

The Rain Parade

Both bands produced a number of successful albums that still sound pretty good today – The Dream Syndicate’s ‘Medicine Show’ (1984) and Rain Parade’s ‘Emergency Third Rail Power Trip (1983) being perhaps the prime examples of their styles.  The Dream Syndicate’s  bassist Kendra Smith appeared on  ‘ETRPT’‘  and subsequently collaborated with Roback and others on ‘Rainy Day’, a Paisley Underground ‘Super Session’ featuring covers of songs by those that had influenced them – The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Jimi Hendrix, among others.  Roback and Smith then left their respective bands and set up a new venture with drummer Keith Mitchell, initially called Clay Allison (?) but eventually transformed into Opal. 

Kendra Smith & David Roback of Opal go all ‘Laura Ashley’

With Opal, we can see the Mazzy Star/Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions model really taking shape. They released only one album , 1987′s  ‘Happy Nightmare, Baby’ (unavailable on CD) which is an absolute stormer, with a stripped-down sound and all Roback’s influences to the fore.  Smith’s dreamy reverb-laden vocals establish the template on which Hope Sandoval has built her career.  For Opal, that was pretty much it; the band toured with Sandoval as a backing singer and when Smith stormed off stage at a London gig, Sandoval took over and the new Roback/Sandoval combination soon changed their name to Mazzy Star, though 2 volumes of Opal’s ‘Early recordings‘  (both recommended but rare as hen’s teeth) did appear in 1989.

Hope Sandoval and David Roback during the Mazzy Star phase

Mazzy Star of course went on to considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic, with ‘Fade into you’ providing an unlikely minor chart hit for the band in 1994 and ‘Flowers in December’ repeating the trick 2 years later.  In the end, Mazzy Star pretty much fell apart after 3 albums and though Roback would occasionally surface – often in a producer’s role – he has produced little of note since and was reputed to have moved to Norway in the late ’90′s.

Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions started life as a collaboration in 2000 between Sandoval and Colm Ó Cíosóig from Irish shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine.  Bassist Alan Browne, another Irish musician, joined later.  Again, the ‘Opal’ model persists with reverbed vocals and the echoing twang of guitars, but there is perhaps a more discenible acoustic or folk influence on the band’s debut, ‘Bavarian Fruit Bread’ (2001) and the new album ‘Through the devil softly’ released this year.

Perhaps it’s because she’s getting older or because of the semi-acoustic approach, but it does seem to me that Sandoval is now giving more priority to her songs and rather less to the overall mood of her records – or maybe that’s just Roback’s absence. She’s just played a few European dates as part of her first tour for several years but remains a diffident performer who is far more comfortable in the studio.  Her music may be a narrow vein, but if you’re unable to lay hands on anything Opal did, Mazzy Star or the Warm Inventions can offer a similar if less intense experience.

Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions on stage 2009 – “Turn the lights down!”

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