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. No one who’s sampled tracks like “I Will Come Back” or “I Know, I Hear” would tell you that attention was not hard-earned, though. There’s a dirty, coked-out R&B halo of funk circling these ditties, equal parts Rick James and New Order. In 2011, 80s dance music is the new black, but Holy Ghost! never come off as merely nostalgic. They blend their influences skilfully and seamlessly, creating dance music that feels contemporary even while calling back to decades past.
But although their debut full-length carries on in the same vein as their previous scattering of releases, it feels like the fire has gone out somewhat. “I didn’t want to limit myself to making an album that could only be played in clubs… We were trying to make something that people would want to listen to front to back at home,” claims singer Alex Frankel. This sets up a perplexing dichotomy: an album of front-to-back club bangers is exactly the kind of thing I’d love to listen to at home. No, this New York duo is holding a little too much back here. A record like this should kick down the door screaming, yet they open with “Do It Again,” one of the slowest-moving songs in the set. And while subsequent tracks quickly pick up the tempo, there’s an inescapable laid-back quality that works against any desire I might have to shake some ass.
But it’s difficult to quantify the difference between the songs of Holy Ghosts!’s that I like and the ones that I don’t. “Hold My Breath” is one that stood out for me immediately. The lead guitar falls easily into step with the plodding one-two drum beat, as the song marches toward the bridge at the two-and-a-half-minute mark, when for a moment all the chiming synth and programmed reverberations we picked up along the way slough off, leaving us alone with Frankel as he chants, “I hold my breath, take some from the joint account/ I know I know I know we’re running out.” It’s not so much that the song is dramatically different from the ones that surround it, but there’s a hunger and desperation there that I don’t quite pick up elsewhere on the album.
My summation, then, is going to be a familiar one. Holy Ghost! isn’t a failure, and it’s well in keeping with their previous material, but at a certain point, all the delicately crafted analog synth melodies start to mush together, and the predominantly mopey breakup lyrics don’t do a lot to differentiate the songs either. These guys are working within a fully-formed aesthetic; they’ve got hooks to spare and production out the wazoo, but right now, I’m just not feeling the soul.