Review of Early Recordings

by Nigel Cross
issued on Hartbeat! #10 (1990)

Whither David Roback, reclusive musical genius, enigmatic former Rain Parade star and West Coast poet? Earlier this year he split his highly regarded Opal combo and set off in search of new horizons. Opal are no more - various ex-members will regroup in 1990 under a new banner and release a new record. Meanwhile, aside from their one LP Happy Nightmare Baby, Opal left behind a huge legacy of unreleased work - most of it never surfacing because of Roback's all-pervasive self-doubt and over-zealous tendency to self-edit and, even, self-destruct!! Regarded with much suspicion, even loathing by his contemporaries, David has constantly refused to conform, steadfastly held back from playing the rock 'n' roll game, knowingly building himself an image of a megalomaniac, a psychotic figure impossible to work with and, probably not even he knows where he's ultimately bound! Amidst periods of chemical imbalance, shattered relationships (I suspect the break up of his longstanding liaison with co-founding Opal person Kendra Smith had more than a little to do with her sudden departure in Nov. '87) and ill-health, Roback (and Smith) wrote and produced one of the most impressive bodies of work, the scene has witnessed this decade. Neither of them were able to capitalize on this in the end - tragically, because Opal (and its earlier incarnation Clay Allison) offered some of the '80s most personal, most committed music.
I've held off writing anything on David, Kendra and pals for over four years. When she left Opal, I felt the same kind of relief you feel on an oppressive summer afternoon when thunder breaks - whilst, through sporadic contact, I instinctively knew what David was about on Nightmare, Kendra sounded increasingly uncomfortable, especially the way she had to adapt her vocal mannerisms to David's then current deranged vision. He was somebody with the most sensuously cool set of pipes in California being made to perform tricks like a circus animal! If the pair of them had released their projected album in summer 1984, we may now have had a different outcome to the story - Kendra is temporarily, at least, lost to the music world. These early recordings are a mishmash of material from '83 thru '87 - after all Opal was Roback and Smith - David reckons Opal could no longer exist without Kendra (the soul?) even with Hope's own pretty voice as a replacement. The music here is beyond question - but the compiler lacks any kind of perspective. For staunch fans, this has to be a big disappointment; the choice is shortsighted with over half the tracks already having been available at least once before. There's no My Canyon Memory, no Sailing Boats, no This Town, no Lisa's Funeral, no Sister of Mercy (I could go on) the inner sanctum of early Opal as far as I'm concerned. But songs like Empty Box Blues and My Only Friend exude that classic country baroque flavour which the pair made their own, whilst Brigit On Sunday reaches new frontiers in Opal's experiments in East/West fusions and, it's honestly great, to finally have Harriet Brown vinylised: all drippy slide guitars and Kendra's deliciously lissome singing.
My own (albeit small) personal involvement with Smith and Roback renders it almost impossible to view Opal's achievements objectively but if I had to nominate one starting point from where to try and unscramble the '80s, then I'd wholeheartedly recommend you begin with this record.

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