Floating serenely through the ether, Kendra Smith has inhabited many hues of psychedelia, from the primary paisley feedback scrawl of the Dream Syndicate (which the onetime bassist co-founded with Steve Wynn in 1981) to the swirly translucence of Opal (a group with ex-Rain Parade guitarist David Roback that transmuted into Mazzy Star upon her 1988 departure), the stonewashed pale Velvet folk-rock of the informal Guild of Temporal Adventurers to the shiny, thickly applied pop art surfaces of her solo album. Although the Californian has, on more than one occasion, followed the logic of drop-out music to its ultimate conclusion and withdrawn completely, she keeps coming back, a beguiling semi-precious stone in the not-quite-here and the not-quite-now. Smith and Roback initially formed Clay Allison with drummer Keith Mitchell (ex-Green on Red/Romans) and guitarist Juan Gomez. Gomez and the moniker (borrowed from a Western film character) lasted for one 7-inch single, after which the remaining three recorded two new songs to flesh out the lovely and understated Fell From the Sun — on which Smith’s vocals meld handsomely with the subtle mood music, a pleasant drone of translucent elegance that resembles the Velvet Underground at their most restrained — and then renamed themselves Opal. Clinging to neo-psychedelia even as many of their Los Angeles scene compatriots moved on to other fads, Opal recorded a 1985 12-inch, one full album and enough leftovers to fill the posthumous Early Recordings.
Northern Line offers the gorgeous acoustic folk-blues of the title track and “Empty Bottles” backed with “Soul Giver” (also on Happy Nightmare Baby), which is eight-plus minutes of spacey organ and feedback guitar.
Happy Nightmare Baby has its share of nostalgic organ-colored drone contemplations, but adds an unexpected and amusing item to the repertoire: a stripped-down T. Rex imitation (“Rocket Machine”) that drifts towards Television. Criticisms: Smith’s laconic singing can become arduous, some of the instrumental work is self-indulgent nonsense and the pace is too slow. Qualities: the songs are there, the ambience is affecting and the performances offer enough texture and dynamics to make Opal’s debut album ultimately satisfying.
Smith exited the group in the middle of the Happy Nightmare tour, which prompted the posthumous Early Recordings. It gathers outtakes, the four Fell From the Sun tracks, plus “Northern Line” and “Empty Bottles” from the three-song 12-inch. Draining away much of Happy Nightmare‘s pseudo-mystical fiddle-faddle, Early Recordings concentrates on Opal’s acoustic side; the spare production adds a chilling closeness to Smith’s vocals, and Roback’s guitar noodlings feel loose and uncontrived. The previously unissued tracks, especially “Empty Box Blues” and “My Only Friend,” have a casual, unrestrained grace. The CD appends “Hear the Wind Blow.”
By ’91, Smith seemed to have made her back-to-rustic-life hippie move permanent and was through with even gentle rocking and rolling. The Guild of Temporal Adventurers put paid to that assumption. Recorded as a trio of Smith, Jonah Corey and A. Phillip Uberman with four aides-de-weird, this spare and lovely 10-inch of folky electric pop wraps the persistent Nico/Velvets element of Smith’s music — underscored by her adoption of pump organ as a primary instrument — around mild mysticism and a subtle intrusion of atmospheric sound effects. (To get to Smith from the sound of Nico, hold the accent and raise the room temperature about fifteen degrees in tone and passion.) Smith does most of the singing — the lullaby-like “Stars Are in Your Eyes” and the droney “Earth Same Breath” (“All the Next Day’s Parties”?) are especially pretty — but co-writer Corey joins her on two of the six songs, including the Eno-esque “Wheel of the Law.”
Picking up from there with real studio effort (Smith co-produced with Uberman), Five Ways of Disappearing is the most ambitious and successful undertaking of Smith’s career. Both a strong recapitulation and a brave relaunch, the album has it all: quiet Velvety obsessions (“Get There”), cerebral songdom (“Aurelia,” “Space Unadorned”), trancey rock (“Drunken Boat”), trad folk (“Maggots”), Kurt Weill’s Berlin (“Bohemian Zebulon”), folk-rock (“Valley of the Morning Sun”), new wavey bubblegum (“In Your Head”) and one of the best acoustic Led Zeppelin imitations in recent memory (“Bold Marauder”). No two tracks have much in common beyond Smith’s enervated singing; even when she might just be aiming to sound ordinary, the record comes off appealingly offbeat. Though some songs are amiss, precious or overly derivative, as a personal sampler, Five Ways of Disappearing is an impressive — and colorful — achievement.