Death Valley Girls Have a Cool Garage Rock Sound But Need Better Songs
Death Valley Girls' Darkness Rains is a stew of bad attitude, crunchy guitars, and simple, pounding drums. But occasionally the band throws in a twist, which at least perks up the ears a bit.
Death Valley Girls
5 October 2018
Death Valley Girls' third album finds the Los Angeles band exploring more of the same musical territory they've already staked out. Namely, doomy, sludgy garage rock that veers from punk to ZZ Top-adjacent boogie blues to slower material more inspired by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. It's a stew of bad attitude, crunchy guitars, and simple, pounding drums. But occasionally the band throws in a twist, which at least perks up the ears a bit.
The Girls are quite good at their basic sound. Every track on Darkness Rains comes with a satisfying crunch from guitarist Larry Schemel and howling, theatrical vocals from Bonnie Bloomgarden. Drummer Laura Harris knows the importance of using toms, shakers, tambourines, and judicious crash cymbals to nail the '60s-inspired '70s rock vibe the band exudes. Bassist Alana Amram is also present in the mix and she even occasionally gets to do more than hold down the basic chord progression.
If this sounds like a fun treat, it is, at least on the first couple of listens. That's about how far Darkness Rains gets on vibe and sound alone. But after spending some time with the album, the band's flaws become more apparent. There is a certain sameness to all of their songs. The riffs are crunchy but not particularly catchy. The vocals are evocative, but the melodies mostly aren't. It doesn't help that Bloomgarden's howl makes it difficult to decipher what she's saying. This issue is further compounded by the production, which puts her voice at the same level as the guitars and drums, making for a muddy mix.
The result is an album where the song titles are often more interesting than the songs themselves. "Street Justice" is an uptempo rocker with a couple of very simple guitar riffs, a basic hard rock beat, and utterly forgettable vocals, which makes for a song with minimal character. "Occupation: Ghost Writer" seems like it has a lot of possibilities, but it's another one where the vocals have no discernible hook. Bloomgarden just tremulously wails along, buried in the mix of another too-simple guitar riff and drumbeat. Schemel gets to do a couple of extended guitar solos in this song, but they aren't very distinctive. "(One Less Thing) Before I Die" posits the interesting musical question, "What would it sound like if 'White Rabbit'-era Grace Slick fronted a punk band?" and then answers it with a 96-second song that's utterly forgettable.
It's not always quite this banal, though. Opener "More Dead" is a very successful distillation of the band's basic sound. A simple but memorable guitar riff clicks in with a tom-heavy drumbeat. Bloomgarden is perfectly decipherable, at least on the chorus when she shouts "You're more dead than alive!", which is really all you need. And it's over in two and a half minutes with just enough minor musical changes to keep the song from being overly repetitive. "Unzip Your Forehead" uses an actual bassline, some shaker-heavy drums, and a minimalist guitar riff in the verses to perk up your attention. Since the guitar isn't throwing a sheen of distortion over everything all of the time, it's possible to make out Bloomgarden's vocals, which climax with her refrain of "We just wanna eat your brain." This song also brings in some saxophones, which have the effect of further dirtying up the sound, but in a cool, interesting fashion.
"Wear Black" uses the chord progression from "Tainted Love", which kind of makes for some built-in catchiness. It also throws in some Farfisa organ, which is a welcome addition to the band's sound, at least as a one-off. "Born Again and Again" manages to use the band's basic style to its advantage, mostly because Schemel's guitar riff creates some stellar doom-rock atmosphere. He then eases up on the crunch for the chorus to let Bloomgarden's howl of "You'll be born again and again" drift to the front of the mix.
The band takes a trip into psychedelia for their nearly six-minute long closer, "TV in Jail on Mars". I want to say the band is pretty well built for just such an excursion, but it's another "name is better than the actual song" situation. At least Amram gets to play a solid bassline in the song. As you'd expect, this is essentially a necessity because she and Harris have to keep the song stable while Schemel goes through a variety of different ideas on guitar. Bloomgarden just sort of drifts along on vocals and also plays quite a bit of glockenspiel. These vocal and guitar explorations aren't very exciting, though. Plus, in the process of keeping the song stable, the rhythm section just vamps on the same four-second long pattern for over five minutes straight, at least until the song fades out with 30 seconds of guitar noise. It's not exactly psychedelic rock at its finest.
There is just enough fun stuff with the band's basic sound and their occasional add-on instruments to make Darkness Rains an easy listen. But there isn't enough good stuff to make it a particularly memorable album. So it ends up being a record with a cool basic sound that doesn't stick with the listener for any length of time.