Release Date: Apr 26, 2011
Record label: DFA
Genre(s): Electronic, Club/Dance
The black veils have barely been lifted for LCD Soundsystem, but their DFA imprint is quick to offer a successor: Holy Ghost!, a New York dance-pop duo with barbed hooks and a penchant for dramatics. This discotheque is guarded by one genius doorman: Luke Jenner (from the Rapture) and Michael McDonald (from the Doobie Brothers and a solo career of marblemouthed soul-pop) both drop in, the latter for an improbable but fully committed cameo on the sultry "Some Children. " Holy Ghost! gradually fold Bee Gees-style falsetto harmonies into percolating synth grooves: the buildup is spry, and the late-set payoff is exceptional, from the shrewd "Static on the Wire" to their preening Freddie Mercury homage ("Slow Motion").
Like the most adept synthesists of ‘80s club music -- Morgan Geist (Metro Area), Stuart Price (Zoot Woman), Trevor Jackson (Playgroup) -- Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser know their history inside-out and how to manipulate the studio gear that made it. The two have the total package, including but not limited to the zipping synthetic basslines, the wriggling rhythm-guitar lines, the torrents of fleet drums, and the melancholy vocals over a sound that is altogether colorful and uplifting. It’s all done with studious attention to detail and total sincerity, even when they evoke uncool-as-of-2011 mid-'80s reference points like Sly Fox (Frankel’s sung/rapped delivery on “Do It Again”) and stadium-era Simple Minds (the frosty piano on “Wait and See”).
DFA Records – home to electronic outfits like LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip (in the U.S.), and Hercules and Love Affair – has gradually earned a reputation as one of the prominent labels in new wave/nu-disco since its inauguration in 2001. Fronted by electro punk protege James Murphy and British producer/DJ Tim Goldsworthy, DFA (an acronym for Death From Above) has also had serious involvement in the Italo Disco revival that has emerged over the last few years. In ’07, Murphy fronted fellow New York enthusiasts of synthesizers and spacey dance beats, childhood friends Nick Milhiser and Alex Frankel, who seemed to divulge all of these post-’80s compulsions with a single titled “Hold On”.
As much as the standard model has shifted from the full-length album to the individual track, there's still a lot of baggage to the phrase "singles band. " A group with a couple of great songs and a few unremarkable ones might've gotten more of a pass for hiding the mediocrities on B-sides back when "sides" were the only game in town, but the nature of an album still has a certain weight to the idea of consistent front-to-back listening that doesn't forgive hitches so easily. Still, even though Holy Ghost! have followed up a string of singles and an EP (2010's Static on the Wire) with an album where the big stumbling blocks are redundancy and an overextension of a few good ideas, it's surprisingly easy to toss those concerns aside and just go for the choice stuff piecemeal-style.
The debut album by NYC duo [a]Holy Ghost![/a] is probably the closest [b]James Murphy[/b]’s DFA label has come to releasing unfettered pop music. You could see them as performing a kind of surrogate role: [a]LCD Soundsystem[/a] are (were?) a shade too archly detached to seriously explore the [a]Pet Shop Boys[/a] pulse, as Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser do here on songs like [b]‘Jam With Jerry’[/b]. Synth-heavy disco and boogie, sleek Italo and plenty of [a]New Order[/a] course equally through their veins; the duo spin a heavily thumbed vinyl library into something largely fresh, and even coax ’70s smoove-rocker Michael McDonald into guesting at the end.
Ahh, DJs, how truly little we know thee. You’ve been making the dance floor a funkier place for decades, but your recorded output has been mainly relegated to indie rock bonus discs and bloated B-sides of bands trying to sound “more electronic.” I ask, “Who art thou, really?” Holy Ghost! are finally liberating themselves from the trappings of DJdom. For the last several years, these guys (New Yorkers Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser) have been making quite a splash as record spinners, producers, and (most famously) remix artists, re-tooling tracks by the likes of MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, Cut Copy, Moby and Phoenix: basically a bunch of bands whose songs pretty much already sound like remixes in the first place.
As difficult as it might be to imagine in the second decade of the 21st century, rock and dance didn’t always get along as well as they do now. Disco as a genre only gained much of its critical respect in the rearview, whether it was as early as Michael Jackson’s immediate legitimizing of the waning form with Off the Wall in 1979 or in the parallel reassessments of its considerable artistic and cultural contributions that came in the decades since. But for a few good years, it was as divisive as any music has ever been in pop’s history, reaching a fever pitch at the now infamous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago at the end of the ‘70s.
As a duo revered for trendier-than-now remixes and their former life as Murphy and Goldsworthy produced hip-hop act Automato, Holy Ghost! highlight the ups and downs of two-piece electro-pop with a surprisingly European sounding debut. Opening with 'Do It Again', Holy Ghost! offer a laid back, funk heavy start to this self-titled album and an interestingly wordy introduction. There’s a straight enough chorus hook, but as a first impression this doesn’t set the heart a flutter.
If I were ever going to fall in love with a shameless throwback record, it would be one constructed by diehard New Order fans wielding vintage synthesizers and drum machines. Thanks to New York's Holy Ghost!, I now own such a record, though I can't say I find these fondly repackaged electro-pop tunes nearly as charming as their creators do. Hat-tips and insider references abound on Holy Ghost!, but what's communicated most strongly isn't, ultimately, the duo's abiding love for new wave and disco, or even the timelessness of the style, but rather the poverty of nostalgia as an aesthetic principle.
Holy Ghost! are true children of the digital age. A band of considerable notoriety, they have built their reputation in bite-sized (byte-sized?) increments: a single here, a remix there, and when they’re feeling exceptionally generous, maybe they’ll grace us with an EP. Only in the 21st century could a band wait four years to put out their first album and still garner this much attention.
Aretha Franklin A marvelous talent shrouded in needless luxury: that’s the usual take-away on Aretha Franklin’s tenure at Columbia Records, which lasted from the time she was 18 to 24. “Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia” (Columbia/ Legacy) attempts a corrective. A lavish reissue package — 11 CDs and a DVD of clips from “The Steve Allen Show” — it keeps an abiding focus on that incandescent voice.
A feast of style, but the electro duo’s debut skimps on substance. Jaime Gill 2011 Timing is not Holy Ghost!’s forte. It’s now three and a half years since debut single Hold On emerged as a delicious fusion of tingling electronica and Italo-house piano chords. If they’d followed it up with a little more urgency they might have led the recent 80s electro revival, instead of being overtaken by fellow duos MGMT and Empire of the Sun.