First Impressions: Islands in the Sky by Death Valley Girls

Last night, I fired up the Flux Capacitor V8 that I long-ago hardwired into my Mazda3 and tore through the fabric of spacetime, arriving in the Nittany Mall’s deserted parking lot on October 26, 1985 at 1:24am. The funny thing is, the trippy music pulsating through the Bose speakers sounded of its time both in the now and in the then, and would’ve been as at home in the mid-1960s and mid-‘90s, too. Islands in the Sky, the latest release from L.A.’s Death Valley Girls, rumbles and jumbles akin to an audio jigsaw puzzle, with some pieces pulled from here and others from there. It’s a little bit punk, a little bit pop, a little bit modern and a little bit retro. The pieces fit, however, and form a sound that’s as riveting as the album’s cover art.

The artist Gilbert Williams’ “Moon Temple” painting graces said cover. If his name or the artistic style sounds or looks familiar, it’s because his “Celestial Visitation” artwork graced the cover of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Daylight Again album. Here, Williams’ work is a perfect fit, as an otherworldly luminescence accents the music. Some songs glow as if in blacklight-adorned rooms, while others answer the question of what David Roback’s post-Rain Parade, pre-Mazzy Star band Opal would have sounded like if Bonnie Hayes had fronted them in lieu of Kendra Smith. It’s not all chirpy, but definitely quirky. 

In any event, front woman—and keyboard player—Bonnie Bloomgarden and her consigliere, guitarist Larry Schemel, have orchestrated an 11-track, 36-minute journey that blends many inspirations and influences into an intoxicating sonic zen. (Rounding out the band: Sammy Westervelt on bass and vocals, Rikki Styxx on drums and vocals, and Greg Foreman on synths, Wurlitzer and Hammond organ. Saxophonist Greg Flores also performs on a few tracks.)

“California Mountain Shake” opens the set; Bloomgarden’s wordless vocals lead into a series of quakes and a confession: “I’m still in love with you,” which she repeats like a mantra throughout. It’s quietly intense. The Opal comparison I mentioned above doesn’t end with Westervelt’s bass rumbling through the soul. Opal’s classic (and lone LP) Happy Nightmare, Baby featured “Magick Power” as Track 2 while Islands in the Sky has “Magic Powers” in the same slot. I’m sure it’s a touch of serendipity only oldsters like me will appreciate, but still—is that cool, or what? That said, their “Magic Powers” sounds more like Best Coast, which is to say fun. The title track shares some advice no doubt gathered from the self-help aisle or similar websites: “You’re in charge of your perception of your life/You can choose what you keep/And what you leave behind.” “Sunday” is akin to a prequel to that song, as it delves into the stasis that sometimes defines life.

“What Are the Odds,” on the other hand, digs into a philosophical question that’s been posed, in one form or another, since the dawn of time: “What are the odds that we live in a simulated world/where nothing is real and I’m a simulated girl?” In a sense, “Journey to Dog Star” offers a rejoinder to that question, as it possesses a supernatural-like quality. Due to its rumbly bass and spacey instrumentals, it’s the one that most reminds me of Opal.

“Say It Too” questions what may come next in a relationship if she goes first; whether that’s from death or parting ways, it’s hard to say. “Watch the Sky,” meanwhile, plugs into the “astral radio” that is the night sky. “When I’m Free,” for its part, marries the girl groups of the 1960s to the garage rock of the same era; it’s a tasty communion for the soul, a bit like the Shangri-Las backed by the Standells. “All That Is Not of Me” continues the mood while sharing some apt advice for the hoarders among us: “You only need to take/What you need, the rest is okay to leave/We can find ourselves so far away/From what we need ‘cause of what we save.” (One need not hoard physical things; many clutter their minds by holding onto regrets and recriminations best left where they belong, aka in the past.) The album closes with another slice of self-help wisdom, “It’s All Really Kind of Amazing”: “Wake up it’s time to be/All the things you dreamed.” 

Depending on your age and musical acumen, you may hear the same or none of the sonic forebears I name-checked above; it doesn’t matter. What does is the music and its grooves, and the girl group-meets-garage rock-meets-cosmic consciousness quality of the songs themselves. Islands in the Sky is a great album. Don’t miss it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s