[5 November 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Nostalgia usually runs in 20-year cycles, but the modest popularity of acts like Empire of the Sun and Holy Ghost! shows that we’re not quite ready to shake off our fascination with the decade of excess. While the synthpop of the ‘80s built their sound upon pre-existing building blocks of pop (how else would they have done it?), acts like Holy Ghost! write their songs as if the genres of techno or disco sprouted out of the ground with no subterfuge. They’ve been able to steer attention their way over a few short years by remixing Moby, touring with LCD Soundsystem, signing to James Murphy’s DFA label and, just recently, touring with New Order. Just to prove how cheeky and respectful they can be, their video for the single “I Will Come Back” mimicked the video for New Order’s “Confusion”, pizza dough and all.
Bands that fashion themselves this way have an uphill battle ahead of them. It’s just hard to be taken seriously when your musical style and personality are based on an era that many people hold to be an embarrassment. But why should the kitchiness of the source material be on trial? Isn’t it most important what Holy Ghost! actually does with this style than the style itself? If they manage to transcend the turbulent years and all of the goof it gathers in our collective hindsight, then surely we can forgive these guys for putting an exclamation mark at the end of their name. Hey, at least they didn’t put it in the middle or anything obnoxious like that.
Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser are the core of Holy Ghost!, though their live performances find at least five guys on the stage. After watching the band warm up the crowd for New Order this past summer, I was mildly surprised to learn that they operated much like the Pet Shop Boys; both guys know how to play the keys, one of them sings. Dynamics is just their second album under this moniker, though Frankel and Millhiser have been through a lot together. After their promising hip-hop band came and went, they began rolling out many singles as early as 2007 – and Dynamics is curiously not all that dynamic. It’s not due to a sophomore slump, but rather something in the DNA, something that curses Holy Ghost! with the negative side of inertia. Once a formula is struck, there is no motivation to push further.
Just to be clear, Holy Ghost! does sound good on Dynamics. The finer points of ‘80s window dressing can never be called into question. Some sound ornamentals are more frivolous than others, but even those don’t sink the mix. A great number of the tracks are catchy, but this is one of those releases calls into question the merits of said catchiness; how it’s not always synonymous with “worthwhile”. The new romantic British invasion sounds of “It Must Be the Weather” is fine – in smaller doses than the 6:15 duration. Ditto for the techno touches of “Bridge and Tunnel”, the umpteenth song with an NYC-centric chorus. And while I think Holy Ghost! are being a little too self-deprecating by naming one of their songs “Dumb Disco Ideas”, I still can’t shake the thought that this is just two partially baked “ideas” stitched together just to stretch the track past the eight-minute mark.
Other songs don’t grow old or, if they do, not nearly as quickly. “Changing of the Guard”, “I Wanna Be Your Hand” and “Don’t Look Down” ride the groove on par with your favorite tunes by Dirty Vegas or Empire of the Sun. And the one point of the album where Holy Ghost! actually toss aside the rules and make something with little regard for commerciality? A 1:16 instrumental called “1 for Edgar”. Perhaps the problem is in the constant need to “return to [our] roots.” The closer you go to those roots, the closer you are getting to the status quo. It’s time to pull up those roots and set sail. Holy Ghost! are capable of leading the charge, but something tells me they won’t.