Ghost Funk Orchestra began as bandleader Seth Applebaum’s lo-fi recording project in 2014. They have been playing as part of New York City’s psych-rock and soul scenes, but have only just recently released their debut album, A Song for Paul. Five years might seem like a long time from a band’s conception to the release of their debut album, but A Song for Paul is clearly worth the wait.
While Ghost Funk Orchestra and A Song for Paul is Applebaum’s project, he uses nearly 20 musicians to realize his vision. The group consistently find the groove while successfully negotiating Applebaum’s detours into some combination of jazz/prog/psych rock that occurs in nearly every tune.
A Song for Paul is dedicated to Applebaum’s grandfather, Paul Anish, whose love of music was a huge influence on young Seth. But the spirit of another great music lover/music maker hovers over A Song for Paul as well, and that would be Isaac Hayes.
The Hayes connection is obvious in two specific songs. “Walk Like a Motherfucker”, the first full track after a short album-opening introduction, establishes the stoned 1970s funk feel that dominates the album. Although there are no backup singers telling vocalist Laura Gwynn to shut her mouth when she gets to that certain word. It seems likely Black Moses would have approved. And then, of course, another track is titled, “Isaac Hayes”, though it does not appear to be literally about Isaac Hayes.
But Hayes’ influence works its way throughout A Song for Paul, which includes both vocal and instrumental pieces. Taken as a whole, A Song for Paul could easily work as the soundtrack to some long-lost 1970s action movie, and, as such, makes for perfectly acceptable funky background music. At the same time, though, A Song for Paul rewards deeper listens.
At its heart, A Song for Paul is about mourning and celebrating our lost loved ones. That is implicit in Applebaum titling one track “Kaddish”, and also in a poem about briefly feeling the spirits of the departed among us that Gwynn recites in “Spirits in the Distance”. But celebration emerges as just as vital on A Song for Paul as mourning. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the most swinging piece on the album is the title track, a groovy number with a distinct bossa nova feel and cooing wordless vocals that would sound great as you sip a tall cool drink on a beach somewhere. If “A Song for Paul” is specifically meant to capture the spirit of Paul Amish, then Mr. Amish was a groovy kind of guy.
Two short piano-based interludes also conjure Seth’s grandfather, who is spoken of on the album’s penultimate track, “A Conversation”. Sweeping Philly soul-styled strings highlight the track but fade into the background as Applebaum’s grandmother, Pearl Anish, speaks lovingly of her late husband, noting Paul’s love for music, particularly the piano. Pearl Anish’s voice is the last one we hear on A Song for Paul, and that feels just right.
Grandfather Paul would certainly be proud of his grandson Seth’s Ghost Funk Orchestra. Chances are, Isaac Hayes might say “damn right”, as well.