Trying my best to get the newsletter out more than once a month. So. Two bands I dig. Two new albums I really dig. Two reviews. Not a lot to criticize, but readers thirsty for blood can take comfort in the knowledge that sometimes my compliments don't actually feel that great.
The two bands discussed, Algiers and Death Valley Girls, have some things in common; they both, old as it might make me/you feel, are—by this juncture—indie veterans. Both bands play modes of Rock n’ Roll that, by virtue of not being shoegaze or grunge, are only in fashion for six-to-eight months every decade. Both bands—while having varying, occasionally overlapping, views on whether the obstacles in place are institutional or existential/spiritual—share a mutual desire to get over and to get free. And both bands operate from the admirably foolhardy premise that music might potentially have something to do with making either of those things happen. Who am I to say different? I wish both bands the best, in that regard.
Full Disclosure: I’ve profiled Algiers enough that we’re friendly. I like them personally. If I see one of them out, I’ll ask them about their families and press for Matador office gossip. But we don’t talk on the phone about boys or New Fast Automatic Daffodils or anything.
And Bonnie, from Death Valley Girls, was one of my roommates in the early aughts. We got along great, only arguing briefly about whose band was booked to play direct support for the Vue on a bill we were both on. We got over that, and are the sort of pals who wish each other well on social media, but we also don’t talk on the phone about New Fast Automatic Daffodils.
Finally, I have included a playlist, at the end of this newsletter, of songs I like that have come out in the last month or so. If this is something you’d like me to continue doing, please let me know!
Thanks. On to the discourse.
Algiers Shook (Matador)
I’m kind of going through a Nirvana-fan-as-a-teenager thing in regards to Algiers. I love the band a lot. I’ve been screaming, at whatever wall was handy, about how great they are for years. Now they’re getting their due and I’m mad that every review doesn’t start with “Zack was right.” (As of this writing, none start with that. I’m not in the habit of finishing reviews but I’m going to assume that few, if any, get around to mentioning me.) This feeling is, of course, fucking juvenile. Like Juvenile, I’m ambivalent about Algiers’ biz being handled; the presumed end of the band’s crying and suffering. (Like Juvenile’s “Ha,” Algiers’ sound is a haunted discotech, and the laughter isn’t derived from finding anything too funny, actually.) (If that’s too much of a reach, you and I look for different things in rock and roll criticism.)
Anyway, Shook is the new Algiers album. It’s a collaborative effort, with an eye and ear towards a larger musical community. Which is novel only if one didn’t previously consider Algiers to be a collective. However one considers the context, the record is bonkers good. Just like all the other Algiers albums.
As a longtime fanboy, I’m averse to any narrative that implies that Algiers were ever lacking and now—on Shook—the band is suddenly great. Algiers made multiple records of CinemaScopic, arcade-worthy, air-hockey bopping, agit-pop. They did a concept album based on a horror novel about a very sweaty house. They covered Outkast. And did it all dressed like Big Audio Dynamite. The band was always both an inspiring exercise in kicking against the pricks, and a real hoot. I’d devote a thousand words to the Describe a Billy Woods Album Without Using The Word “Apocalyptic” Challenge effect, and how it's been historically misapplied to Algiers, but I’m trying to be positive here. I’m genuinely happy for Algiers. All the praise is more than well deserved. Assuming Matt Tong isn’t getting residuals from the new Paramore album, the guys in Algiers deserve to have the world finally pay its share of the rent. (Emotionally/metaphorically speaking. Though money would be nice too.)
And all that said, every band wants the new album to be better than what came before, so if we all want to claim Shook as the band’s best, who am I to blow against the received wind? The new album is certainly where a number of the band’s tensions—between experimentation and accessibility, between the various sound modes of 1981 and the sounds of now (whenever “now” might be)—are, as opposed to the non-alignment pact of influences evident on other albums, resolved. If previous Algiers albums were roller-disco-punk and agit-funk (in this house, we don’t apply the “s” word to Algiers), then Shook is where Algiers realizes the ambitions that grebo bands (like Pop Will Eat Itself) weren’t perhaps clever or handsome enough to bother having in the first place; a post-punk G. Moroder/D. Summer vibe, filtered through Southern hip hop, Backwoodz Studioz abstraction/direction, spoken poetry of command, and the hard commie glam guitars of Vision Thing-era Sisters of Mercy.
Fuck it. If we’re going to be reductionist no matter what… In the new record’s expansive palette, disregard for convention, adherence to (rockist) boom bap propulsion, and its sideways—occasionally digressive—block rockin beats, YES, Shook is, God forgive me…
…Free Big Beat.
(Applause. Weeping in the streets. Freedom Tower grows 1,776 inches. The sky opens up and Buddah, Jesus, and Shredder from TMNT all give me the thumbs up. In response, I solemnly nod.)
Also, if you squint super hard, parts of “Irreversible Damage” sound a bit like Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” and Naujawana Baidar “Dur Nest.”
Extra points awarded to Algiers for Shook including the incomparable Nadah El Shazly on a track, for bringing the old singer of Inside Out out of retirement (dude’s still got it!), and for being the only album in a half century (that I’m aware of) to reference 1984 vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.
Death Valley Girls — Islands in the Sky (Suicide Squeeze)
We live in an era where rock and roll’s rebirth is re-announced every six months. With each iteration either focussed exclusively on the brief epochs (Summer of Love, post-punk, grunge) easiest to scrape skin samples from and translate into signifier. Or else run through the Travis Barker transmogrifier, till all that remains is the aural equivalent of slurry run-off from an unlicensed facial piercing kiosk at a shopping mall that stands only as an undead tribute to the golden age of shopping malls, and a too-hotly mastered snare. In contrast to all this youth-culture/death-culture mongering and flattening of history, Death Valley Girls are almost heroic in their historical cherry picking. The band pulls not from what’s easiest to approximate (via recording technique or hairdo), but from the places in rock & roll’s timeline where the line between spiritual planes—between the fertile earth and the great and terrible hoo-ha—was the thinnest; when Iggy first looked in the mirror shirtless and liked what he saw, when X entered the studio with Ray Manzarek, when Roky Erickson had a vision of his first two headed puppy, when Hawkwind had its first band meeting to discuss what to do about Lemmy, when Ronnie Spector cashed her first Eddie Money check, when Belinda Carlisle and Jane Weidlen pulled their first train on an English Beat merch boy.
Death Valley Girls play garage rock, sure, as a loosey goosey template. But they do so from a garage that has one of those Rick Sanchez space-telescopes attached, with the giant lenses alternatingly pointed at the desert and the stars. The band’s singers harmonize and solo belt in a fashion that could be called “soulful” if you were mad at it. But Islands in the Sky doesn’t concern itself with Mark Ronson-esque hyperreality. The band is more like Faith-era George Michael; if the stubbley heartthrob had recorded “Monkey” with a teenage Jack White, backed by every single musician who ever recorded a version of “She’s About a Mover” (plus an ex-member of The Delta 72 on keys).
(The latter flight of fancy being less theoretical as—on Islands in the Sky—Death Valley Girls are indeed joined by a former member of The Delta 72, in the welcome addition of Gregg Foreman.)
Regardless of the ample amount of handclaps and swollen organ, there’s no pandering to a (caricature of a) boomer’s fetishistic desire for “authenticity.” Rather, besides the obvious (and welcome) girl group touchstones, Bonnie Bloomgarden—sharing vocals with bassist Sammy Westervelt and backed by (presumably amicable departed) former bassist Nicole “Pickle” Smith—instead plays effortlessly to the now people; the all-aged booty shakers in the audience who are unconcerned with time and time’s rules.
With Bonnie Bloomgarden getting started with The Witnesses, guitarist Larry Schemel being in Kill Sybil and The Flesh Eaters, and drummer Rikki Styxx having done time with The Dollyrots, the Darts, and Alice Bag, Death Valley Girls have a collective resume that spans decades. All the members have done hardish time in the raggedly heroic kind of subcultures that used to exist outside of linear time and were almost exclusively populated by Betty Page look-alikes sporting Betty Page tattoos, cowpokes who learned everything they needed to know about the way out west from Thin White Rope albums, and all the other friends of friends of friends of Kid Congo Powers with a haircut and a dream (of having even better hair). Now that gatekeeping is out of fashion, Iceage gentrified cowpunk, and one no longer needs a prison tattoo to prove that one knows who Mike Ness is, Death Valley Girls free. And the band revels in this freedom. The band who started as a quasi girl gang, called their debut full length Street Venom, and previously made an album of Stooge-ian muck diving, entitled Darkness Rains, have embraced the joyous lightness in their songwriting that was always (even when signifying tuffness) burbling through. Whether through vibe shift, a continuous journey through revelation, or just getting sober, the result is an album that paradoxically keeps the black leather intact while feeling positively bubbly, practically effervescent. Death Valley Girls, with pulpy name intact, now write songs about life and living, some dedicated to their dogs, in the hope that their dogs might someday sing along. Their instagram page is full of pictures of children dancing.
As with all artists who find liberation via esoterics and spiritual transgression, with band members who smile wild in individual embodiments of transcendent freaky-deaky-ness, there’s always a fear that band is one Kumbucha away from giving a Matt Pike-ian interview where they put a foot in their third eye and call gravity a hoax. But if Death Valley Girls does maybe tilt Luciferan, it's to a jaunty angle; like the tipped cap of Disney’s Robin Hood, back when he was played as a foxy fox on the run. Doing what thou wilt—in the band’s reading—is a posi, humanist/alienist ethos. Like Hot Stuff the Little Devil. Or Madonna when she was Jewish. If Death Valley Girls do believe in lizard people, it’s the kind of lizard people who would use their control of the media to remake They Live as a kind of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School type fantasy; a fun flick, with three chords and a happy ending, about how cool it is to wear sunglasses.
It helps if—as a black magic practitioner of professional Rock & Roll music—you can still get high (and higher) from endlessly recurring Ron Asheton riffs, messages beamed directly from silver machines from inner and outer space, and whatever stray residue-of-Mary-Wells spirit energy (whatever amount still shoots through the material world as universal psychic joy) that you can capture in a jar. If Death Valley Girls’ lyrics take a slightly, shall we say, “bootstrap” approach to holistic awakening, that’s only because the band knows, better than most, their way around the veil. Living psychedelically without the benefit of psychedelics is practically a job. Breaking on through to the other side is one way to live. But the hip and the dead all know that what’s on the other side is… another side. What’s endless is a lot. So Death Valley Girls’ talent, for making spiritual space truckin’ fun and seemingly worthwhile, is appreciated. Life—and, by extension, rock and roll—is worth the hassle. Glad someone said it.
Thanks for reading.
- Middleman - Go!
2. Algiers - Irreversible, Devil (with E L U C I D)*
3. King Ayisoba - Abome
4. FACS - When You Say
5. Death Valley Girls - Journey to Dog Star
6. Algiers - Algiers feat. Zack De La Rocha - Irreversible Damage
7. Zohra - Look for Love
8. Lalalar - Hata Benim Göbek Adim
9. SKECH185 - The River
10. Moussa Tchingou - Tamiditine
11. Andrew Mbaruk & Rhys Langston - Dylan Thomas and James Baldwin Walk into a Bar feat. Old Grape God
12. Sleaford Mods - Force 10 From Navarone
13. M(h)aol - Therapy
14. Truth Cult - Naked in the End
15. Blacklist - Arms Of A Cross
16. The New Pornographers - Angelcover
17. Beauty Pill - Lifeguard In Wintertime (2023 Remaster)
18. Rotary Club - American Tower
19. Scowl - Opening Night
20. Znous - Choufini Yamma
21. Donna Allen - Afterbirth
22. Faten Kanaan - Ard Diar
23. Fatboi Sharif & Roper Williams- Christ Corpse
24. Erste Theke Tontraeger - Undone
25. Anatomy of Habit - Breathing Through Bones