Death Valley Girls– Islands In The Sky
If I’m feeling defeated or hopeless, there are few bands that can flip my mood as much as Death Valley Girls can. During the darkest moments of the pandemic, like many of us, I sure could get lost in some despair. But I had the gift of DVG’s 2020 album, Under the Spell of Joy, and like its title suggests, a surge of hope would come with every listen; I’d find myself smiling and finding my inner strength again as I bounced around my apartment. Bonnie Bloomgarden, the band’s lead vocalist and chief songwriter, possesses an infectious positivity that hits you like a laser beam. The group’s unique blend of garage, punk, and psychedelic pop gets you dancing like crazy as a form of mystical healing, and their brand new album, Islands in the Sky, takes the mysterious ecstasy to the next level. The record was recorded, mixed, produced, and engineered by Mark Rains at Station House Studio and is released today on Suicide Squeeze.
Islands in the Sky, more than any of their other albums to date, is intended to be a form of musical self-care, both for the listener and for the band members themselves. Bloomgarden originally came up with the concept of the record while she was bed-ridden with a mysterious illness from November 2020 to March 2021. In a statement she elaborates: “When I was sick, I started to wonder if it would be possible to write a record with messages of love to my future self. This was really the first time that I consciously thought about my own suffering and what future me might need to hear to heal. I struggled so much in my life with mental health, abuse, PTSD, and feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere. And I don’t want anyone—including my future self—to suffer ever again. I realized that if we are all part of one cosmic consciousness, as we [Death Valley Girls] believe, then Islands in the Sky could serve not only as a message of love and acceptance to myself, but also from every self to every self, because we are all one!”
The cosmic unity comes glimmering through immediately on the album opener, “California Mountain Shake,” as Bloomgarden confesses her love to a mystical force (or herself) and special guest Gabe Flores’s saxophone swells underneath. The second song, “Magic Powers,” is a synth-and-organ-drenched mid-tempo track featuring lead vocals from bassist Sammy Westervelt (who co-wrote the lyrics with Bloomgarden). On the lyrics Bloomgarden shares “I was walking down the street, and all of the sudden it dawned on me that almost all the things that kids bullied me about, or I got in trouble for in school, or was told would make me never amount to anything, were actually my magic powers! My voice isn’t too high, or funny, it’s how I cast my spells! I’m not a bad student, I love learning, and being a seeker! And I’m not a crazy person with weird ideas, that will never fit into society, I’m a witch, and I have magic powers!” Westervelt also directed the video for the song, which features her jumping over pixelated mushrooms in an enchanted forest, a la a 1980s-style arcade game.
The title track offers the most directly empowering message of the record, with Bloomgarden’s gorgeous voice belting out these affirmations: “You’re in charge of the perception of your life / …you can choose what you need / …no one gets to choose for you what you need to be.” The band rocks along with a go-go dancing intensity that’s playfully captured (with DVG’s typical goth edge) by dancing ghosts in a graveyard disco in the song’s fantastic video (directed by Dylan Mars Greenberg).
The soul-searching continues with “Sunday,” transporting us with what can be described as psychedelic gospel (featuring special guests Gregg Foreman on synth, Wurlitzer, and Hammond Organ and Gabe Flores again on saxophone). It’s a gloomy Sunday to start, with Bloomgarden wailing: “I’m sick of struggling to just be / What will come of me? / What do I need? / I gotta be free / I need a sign.” The sign finally comes in the form of drummer Rikki Styxx picking up the tempo as Larry Schemel’s guitar wakes up and comes to life, and “Sunday” rocks out to its end with Bloomgarden’s lyrics revealing that she always possessed the power within herself to keep going: “I gotta move on / (Keep on moving).”
“What Are the Odds?,” Islands in the Sky’s fifth track (end of side A on the vinyl) offers the most bounce-around-the-room energy while also pondering a seemingly frightening possibility of our existence. “What are the odds that we live in a simulated world,” Bloomgarden’s lyrics ask, “Where nothing is real and I’m a simulated girl?” But the chance of meeting a future simulated self pleases Death Valley Girls more than scaring them, and Schemel’s catchy guitar hook here makes you dance away any terror that might lurk in the idea of coming face to face with your doppelganger. Who knew that discovering that reality is just a simulation could feel this good?
Death Valley Girls live in 2022 (photos by Kate Hoos)
“When I’m Free,” is another stand out track which was originally released on a split 7-inch with Le Butcherettes who’s side had a fantastic cover of the DVG song “The Universe” from Under the Spell of Joy. (“When I’m Free” also received an intoxicating electronica remix last year from the incomparable Peaches.) Island in the Sky’s final track, “It’s All Really Kind of Amazing” (previously released in 2021) sends us off with a final pep-talk serenade from Bloomgarden: “Wake up in the dream / When you believe / You have everything / Everything that you need.” This ultimate “cosmic hymn” features the many all-stars of the musical collective that contributed to Islands of the Sky, including the back-up choir “gang vocals” of special guests Little Ghost, Pickle, and Kelsey Whatever NBD. Additionally, Foremann shines again on this last track with Wurlitzer hooks, Flores brings back his saxophone magic, Mark Rains adds on an extra layer of percussion, and Emily Retsas holds it down on the bass.
Both “When I’m Free” and album closer “It’s All Really Kind of Amazing” feature Retsas on bass; Sammy Westervelt joined the crew after those two songs were recorded. “It’s All Really Kind of Amazing” also continues the DVG’s commitment to fantastic visual interpretations of their music, with a super-psychedelic video directed by Bradley Hale.
Iggy Pop has described Death Valley Girls as “a gift to the world,” and although that gift is clear in all of their albums, Islands in the Sky demonstrates a new level of spiritual generosity that invites us to dance away our self-loathing. So get it in your ears as soon as possible and feel better! You will shimmy and shake and embrace all that is wonderful about you and all of us. Maybe there is hope for the world afterall…
Islands in the Sky is out now via Suicide Squeeze and is available on all major streamers.