New York duo signed to James Murphy's DFA label use 21st century genre-bending innovations to make music firmly rooted in the past.
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. Racist? Homophobic? Probably, although the sheer number of the decade’s top rock stars who flaunted pansexual antics or images raises other questions about the acceptability of the latter when it comes dressed in the palatably enough. Disco’s perceived crimes were ones of authenticity as much as they were offenses to the status quo, and it would take rock music into the next century before it was finally able to grow up.
One of the more amusing things about New York duo Holy Ghost! is how firmly their music feels situated in the complex aftermath of the years that followed the death of disco’s initial wave. If synthesizers and processed dance beats were a big part of what made disco the enemy, then new wave, with its equal reliance on electronic instruments and appropriation, for the most part, of the melodic forthrightness of what constitutes pop in the Beatlesque sense, was surely even more of a spit into the face of real music. Holy Ghost! sound far more like a synth-pop band than disco revivalists, but their association with James Murphy, whose label DFA they appear on and whose watershed dance-rock outfit LCD Soundsystem they have toured with, links them to this tension and the inevitable resolution that came largely at the hands of crafty genre benders like Murphy, whose equal reverence for Donna Summer, David Bowie and NYC punk created one of the previous decade’s most distinct and revolutionary sounds.
Collecting the band’s small but intriguing string of singles dating from 2007 to the present and then rounding it out with new material, Holy Ghost!’s debut is most interesting for the moments where the band was still working out its sound, deciding whether it was most comfortable dancing, rocking out or merely twitching. Songs like “Hold On” and “Static on the Wire” (the earliest things here) sound like excavated early '80s relics, fiddling with the displaced feeling of being stranded somewhere between strobe lights and the garage, whether it is in the crisp beats, minimal synth riffs and halting vocal delivery of the former or the lean percussion and funky Stevie Wonder-esque electric piano burps of the latter. Moving even deeper into the well of circa-1981 pop weirdness, the 2010 single “Say My Name” evokes the sleek buzz of any number of the era’s Giorgio Moroder or Wendy Carlos film scores, its gentle, fluttery atmosphere feeling every bit as elegantly coked-out as anything on Destroyer’s Kaputt.
Understandably, though, the newer stuff on Holy Ghost! features far less dabbling and far more melodic urgency, as if the band became more consciously song-oriented the closer they got to putting together an album. Still, the album’s strongest moment, “Do It Again”, finds a pitch perfect balance between the band’s competing impulses, whooshing with Kraftwerk-like precision and affecting a hard edged thump straight out of LCD Soundsystem all while mixing in a vibrant array of horns and effects. What makes the song truly soar is the duo’s strong emphasis on its catchy, inexorable hooks, proving them far more strictly pop oriented than any of their genre forbearers. This becomes even more apparent in their most recent single, the rippling, expansive “Wait and See”, which finds them becoming even more confident in their pop ambitions, attempting a song more centered around a vocal, rather than an instrumental melody.
Accordingly, the newer, non-single material on Holy Ghost! finds the band striving for a similar equilibrium between 21st century genre-melding craft and retro cool. Sometimes, they lean a little too much towards the latter, occasionally confusing '80s cutting edge with pure '80s cheese, with the robo-latin groove of “Slow Motion” reminding, of all things, of Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga” or, even more puzzlingly, the novelty guest vocal turn by (yes, that) Michael McDonald on “Some Children”. The band is better off sticking to blatant New Order homages like the tightly wound “It’s Not Over”, with its charmingly dated wanky guitars and spacious, stadium-sized drum fills or, better yet, the glittering synth swirl of “Jam for Jerry”. As long as Holy Ghost! continue to cherry-pick the best moments of their particular strain of the musical past, they may just have a promising future.