Islands in the Sky by Death Valley GirlsRelease date: February 24, 2023
Label: Suicide Squeeze
On 2020’s Under the Spell of Joy, Death Valley Girls brought positivity and spiritual uplift with the band’s self-described ‘Space Gospel’ record. Packed full of good catchy pop hooks, drilled with indie/punky grit, rawness, and artful sophistication. On (this writer’s, at least) much anticipated follow up Islands in the Sky sees chief songwriter Bonnie Bloomgarden muster songs of equal positivity, but from within a deeper, personal adversity source for inspiration. After being bed ridden with a mysterious illness that lasted for five months from the end of 2020 and to the beginning of 2021, Bonnie explains in the press release “when I was sick I started to wonder if it was possible to write a record with messages of love to my future self.”
This led to Bonnie and drummer Rikki Styxx to hunker down in a cabin in the Californian woods to channel songs for the cause. Recorded at Station House studios in Echo Park along with guitarist Larry Schemmel and new bassist/co-lead singer Sammy Westervelt, Islands, still has indie spacey vibes, but the epi-centre and noticeable evolvement is in its furthering gospel infusions. Still maintaining high on quality melodies for transporting the listener to a higher enjoyment plain, their song-writing has an even sharper nous this time around.
Bonnie’s messages to self begins in the opener ‘California Mountain Shake’ as Bonnie croons “I’m still in love with you” over gorgeous floaty saxophone and whooshy keys/synths. This blooms into a fuller effect with ‘Magic Powers’ swirly keys and finger picked guitar combine to gracefully recall Belly at their most swooning. Death Valley Girls just seem to pull out melodies from out of the ether, or out of those Californian woods with careful layered ease.
There is a slightly considered tenderness than previous albums, less on the Stooges psychedelia – saxophone stronks have evolved into more prolonged melodic embellishments – more on indie channelling church gospel influences. This is none so heightened as on the churchy organ opening of ‘Sunday’ where “I need a sign” and “I need to lay down and never get up again” erupts into full band, saxophone head swirling outpourings with the pep talk lines (one of many littered across the songs) of “keep on moving” remaining in your head long after the song, and indeed, the album has finished.
Their indie guitar credentials are still intact though, none more so as on ‘What are the Odds’ and the title track. Which the latter sees Bonnie’s slightly rough at the edges sugar coated vocals tones vary range, and increase as the song progresses for another earworm highpoint. While they venture into mesmeric Indie space rock with ‘Watch the Sky’.
Originally on a split single with Le Butcherettes ‘When I’m Free’ is given the remix treatment by Peaches. From the soulful piano and vocal “nothing can happen to me anymore” it aims and indeed reaches the sky with some swanky keyboards and enlists a groove to get you prancing around the room. In a just world, this would be a massive hit single.
The idea may have been to provide positive support for Bonnie herself, but Islands in the Sky contains many songs which blossom with spring like melodies and deserve to propel the band to a wider audience. Death Valley Girls have pulled off another smart, fun, uplifting, earworm masterstroke.