Over the past six years, the L.A based coven Death Valley Girls formed by Hole drummer Patty Scheme have proven to be wonderfully batshit crazy with their eclectic evocation of everything from blues rock to riot grrl via psyche, indie folk and laden with heavy shades of 60’s pop.
And now, on newly released fourth LP ‘Under the Spell of Joy’ which they call their “space-gospel record”, the rapturous madness continues with a dark descent into a seductive witchy underworld across eleven tracks thanks to the use of a children’s choir and liberal applications of delay pedals and reverb on all guitars, keys, vocals and everything else at all times.
‘Hypnagogia’ is the transitional stage where the waking world begins to fall away as we emerge into the subconscious and the first track is a suitably ethereal dreamscape as layered vocals and keys meld into a rising cacophony. ‘Hold My Hand’ has something of The Velvet Underground about it, such a great guitar hook and it roars with camp energy.
I’m a real sucker for wailing saxophone and thankfully ‘Under the Spell of Joy’, both the track and the album, is awash with it. The title track turns out to be a mischievous incantation in the pursuit of forbidden pleasures curtesy of the forementioned kid’s choir which combines with a basic yet truly catchy guitar riff before breaking out into a mad stomping headrush freakout.
‘Bliss Out’ recalls motown with the classic drumbeat, wall of sound and subversively disturbing lyrics about both the impermanence and pointlessness of life with a bright pop shine. The marriage of a disturbing subject matter with such a joyous sound is perfectly balanced and a real highlight on the album. Side A then steps up the experimentation with the oddly pensive space rock song ‘Hey Dena’ whose droning organs and unsettling strained vocals never find peace. We then find ourselves floating in ‘The Universe’, the most expansive song on the album that ebbs and flows as we are cast adrift in the void, coasting peacefully according to the mercy of the solar winds and gravitational bends.
The second half of the LP returns to a more conventional rock n’ roll direction. ‘It All Washes Away’ has a proto punk feel to it, ‘Little Things’ is a charming garage rock number with a childish innocent quality and ’10 Day Miracle Challenge’ has all the pep and spikey energy of an early Sleater Kinney single. ‘I’d Rather Be Dreaming’ is a stripped back almost skeletal deconstruction of R&B with a slight psyche edge accompanied by impassioned vocals that bleed with heartbreak. ‘Under the Spell of Joy’ closes with the hypnotic pulses of ‘Dream Cleaver’ which once again blasts us out beyond the stratosphere before falling to back to Earth from a decaying orbit.
The benefit of actively pursuing a retro feel lends your record a timeless quality, which will always appeal to an audience that isn’t desperately driven to only listen to the most ground breaking or original work and is happy to enjoy being led once again down well-trodden paths. And despite all the playful experimentation throughout ‘Under the Spell of Joy’ and the bountiful dark fruit it has brought forth, Death Valley Girls have certainly not conjured up anything we haven’t heard before. But that doesn’t mean their fourth outing isn’t a good solid record with plenty of appeal to psyche diehards, Urban Outfitter clad hipsters and pastel goths alike.
It’s such a shame we won’t hear these cavernous choirs, echoing dark hymns and deviant rock n’ roll songs at a gig any time soon because as good as this sounds recorded, the spacious sound presented would be truly epic to experience being played live. However, if you do find yourself at a Halloween party at the end of the month (assuming everything hasn’t gone the full 2020 and a hellmouth has opened and swallowed us all whole), with its mix of sinister 60’s vibes and mind bending tracks, it’s the perfect fresh choice to play. And if anyone puts on the Time Warp, you have my permission to shoot them.