Death Valley Girls : Under the Spell of Joy

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Since the Summer of Love, California’s been the go-to epicenter of psychedelic rock in the United States. In recent years, though, it’s gradually moved its way further south along the coast. Maybe the tech boom priced the freaks out of Haight-Ashbury, or maybe the weather was just a little more appealing in Southern California, but Los Angeles (and to a lesser extent San Diego) is where most of the Rickenbacker jangle, swirling guitar drones and buzzing organs have migrated in the past decade. There’s a nostalgic angle to it, certainly—at least there would be if anyone attending Desert Daze were born before 1967—as well as an excuse to wear big, floppy hats and striped bellbottoms. But its resurgence suggests that effects-laden rock ‘n’ roll freak-outs transcend generation.

Southern California’s psych superstars, Death Valley Girls, have been standouts among the Golden State acid rock revival due to the gothic streak that runs through their music—they’re not literally from Death Valley, if that helps. On their new album Under the Spell of Joy, however, the group took a sort of unexpected influence from another like-minded group of fuzzbox bandits, San Diego’s Joy. The two bands are kindred spirits if not necessarily sonic parallels—Death Valley Girls are more gloom-garage, Joy more of a progressive psych in the vein of Comets on Fire. But Death Valley Girls’ Bonnie Bloomgarden internalized the slogan on one of Joy’s t-shirts, “Under the Spell of Joy,” that she wore for five years, its implications of radiant positivity and life pouring into the group’s immersive fourth album.

True to its title, Under the Spell of Joy is vibrant and fun, an expression of warmth—or perhaps more accurately, heat. These songs feel alive and in the moment, their organic tube-head fuzz tone and organ drones creating an illusion of being in the same room as the band, enough to conjure phantom beads of sweat and the lingering taste of lukewarm Pabst Blue Ribbon. But the band’s never sounded as strong as they do here, tearing their way through Stooges-y punk rock on “10 Day Miracle Challenge,” hypnotic, saxophone-driven psych swirls on “Hypnagogia,” and hazy opium-den goth in “Hey Dena.” On some level these are simple songs from familiar elements—fun as this is, it’s still traced in black eyeliner—but what Death Valley Girls do with them still feels fresh and novel, even exciting.

Bands like Death Valley Girls thrive in small clubs where they can play loud in close quarters, and when that doesn’t happen, the whole concept of a scene starts to become more theoretical than practical. There are still psych bands in southern California, we just only find them on Bandcamp now. But Under the Spell of Joy offers a reminder of how much fun it is to experience a good, loud rock ‘n’ roll band, and does so with a great batch of songs that show an extra level of growth. Even if it’s only in small doses, it’s reason enough to find joy.

Label: Suicide Squeeze

Year: 2020

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