From the title of Deap Vally’s second studio album, it’s probably obvious that the California blues rock duo is done with Feminism™ — the subject two women in a band must always expect to address in interviews, the superficial buzzword that sticks to female artists in the 21st century whether they like it or not. Julie Edwards and Lindsey Troy’s frustration at being pigeonholed by a supposedly liberatory ideology is a new shade to Deap Vally. They’ve also forged ahead into fresher sonic territory on their latest, FEMEJISM, with the help of producer Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and without the auspices of Island Records, the label that released Sistrionix in 2013.
For all its power and attitude, Deap Vally’s debut was flat, with little variation in sound. FEMEJISM won’t make the comparisons to the Black Keys disappear, but it is heftier and fuller than Sistrionix, showcasing forays into other genres like the unsubtly titled “Post Funk” and “Grunge Bond”. Edwards shines on the former, her galloping drum patterns propelling Troy’s bright, confident riffs. On the latter, the band ride a thrumming guitar line, a rusted razor blade plucked straight out of Nirvana’s repertoire circa Bleach. On the single “Gonnawanna”, Deap Vally aim for arenas with airy sweeps of guitar and a simple, triumphant chorus: “I’m gonna! Do! What! I wanna!”
These songs preach the heeding of instinct and the seeking of sensation, the kind of hedonistic, escapist gospel so beloved by pop radio. These ideas fit Deap Vally’s freewheeling blues rock just fine, but they’re ultimately tired sentiments that manifest in stale lyrics, like this awkwardly logical construction from “Post Funk”: “I have got this kind of lust, this wanderlust/ It’s telling me to go so I must go.” For its part, “Grunge Bond” boasts the mildly cringey and unconvincing exhortation, “Don’t think too much/ You’ll hurt your head/ Why don’t you feel/ Something instead.”
Deap Vally often get tagged as “badass.” It’s not a surprising or inaccurate adjective for a band that’s proud to sing about the importance of the hustle (“Royal Jelly” on FEMEJISM, “Gonna Make My Own Money” on Sistrionix) and condemn predatory men while asserting women’s sexual independence (“Two Seat Bike” on FEMEJISM, “Creeplife” on Sistrionix). But an ass-kicking, name-taking persona can also become boringly one-dimensional, no matter how valuable the mission. It wears down the badass in question, as is the case on FEMEJISM.
“Smile More”, the epitome of this perpetually offensive stance, is a tired and cynical takedown of the backward, leering patriarchy. You feel for Edwards and Troy, who must take a whole song to uncategorically defend their personhood to the dudebros who still don’t get it. But that doesn’t stop the weariness of the subject from bleeding into the sluggish song, a near-static canvas for retorts like “I am happily unhappy, man/ And I don’t want to shake your hand.” On the slower, quieter “Critic”, Deap Vally sneer at the “fucking critics” and “fucking cynics” who “talk shit” through their computer keyboards. Slotted halfway through the album, it’s a brief reprieve from the loud drums and guitar, but also a bit of a pointless moaner.
Troy does not often cede her authority to become an observer, but when she does, intriguing stories and some emotional nuance emerge. Allusive details dot the lyrics of “Little Baby Beauty Queen” — “tied up in a basement Christmas day,” “you were six and I was 10, I needed to get revenge” — hinting at dangers that are never explicitly revealed. But by the end of the song, the urgency is clear. Over barreling drums, Troy hoarsely whispers a warning to “hold your babies close” from the “killer on the loose,” and then practically shreds her vocal cords on the last chorus, her shrieks at total odds with the phrase she’s yelling: “Beauty queen! Beauty queen!”
On sister song “Teenage Queen”, Deap Vally grapple with the anxieties of age, lyrical coherence falling apart in the face of a society which fetishizes infantilized women. “Youth … money/ Skinny … pretty … girls,” Troy purrs (the last phrase a pleasantly surprising nod to the song “City’s Full” by Savages). Edwards’ backing vocals are clearer than usual, supplying an ominous echo to Troy’s panicked chorus: “35 years of age, how can you possibly stay the same? You know the only rule, it’s up to you, your life is up to you.” Deap Vally are most compelling when they dig further than irreverently dismissing superficial, mainstreamed feminism, but rather go on to explore what makes modern womanhood disturbing or even terrifying, the omnipresent eye of patriarchy be damned.
Essential Tracks: “Post Funk”, “Little Baby Beauty Queen”