Former Ghosts New Love

[Upset The Rhythm; 2010]

Rating: 2/5

Styles: bedroom pop, goth, electro, disco, coldwave, post-punk, glitch, synth
Others: Cold Cave, Zola Jesus, Tearist, Xiu Xiu, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, Cindytalk, Joy Division, Beranek, The Cure

Former Ghosts is the brainchild — or, rather, the bleeding-heart-child — of Freddy Ruppert, shored up by the inimitable talents of wormwood-rising star Niki Roza Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus, and the deft old hand of Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, both of whom independently stole the show during the joint tour of all three groups. While the latter blitzed with stellar performances at London’s XOYO, Ruppert blamed his excessive ‘rocking out’ for a set marred by malfunctioning technology. Either with an irony so fatal it was intangible or with no irony at all, Ruppert spoke into an awkward silence to apologetically praise the (shuffling, not rocking-out) crowd for its understanding and lack of awkward silence. Cue awkward silence.

It’s clear that an attitude of staid — or, if you’re sympathetic, profound — earnestness rather than dry-as-a-bone humor informs New Love, and this sobriety is most apparent in lyrics that would be far more tolerable if their unremitting affectation of content and delivery were married to a poetic sensibility that was less grating.

Musically, it’s fine that ‘rocking out’ in any traditional sense is something New Love rarely invites. What self-respecting fan of the coldwave sound, whether in its past or current incarnation, would describe their use of such music in these terms? It’s fine that New Love doesn’t deliver in that sense, because neither does the very similar Cold Cave’s gothic-electro-disco sleeper Love Comes Close. The difference is that Love Comes Close is so much more a joy, even as it also, to quote New Love’s PR bluster, expresses the gothic majesty of the “love of loss.”

Though I’d like to like New Love, and though on occasion it elicits a spinal tingle, I’m subsequently spurned, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Like such sentiments, Former Ghosts’ second release just seems a little sophomoric. Then again, perhaps this impression is a triumph, if falling slightly short and feeling denuded and jejune in the face of failure is one of the album’s messages.

This may be the case, because this collection is clearly a profoundly heartfelt series of statements about heartbreak, jealousy, and return; the lyrical content is direct and clear, New Love the theme. I can’t resist returning to the lyricism again, and there’s the crux: unfortunately, it feels that a little indirectness would go well to temper the unbridled honesty of these lovelorn poems. While the confessional quality of these songs draws comparisons to Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, they read as (even more) earnest or trite in the utter absence of CFTPA’s humor — dry, gentle, or otherwise.

Perhaps such a chary critical reflex is really embarrassment masking an inadequacy of understanding in the face of such honest love songs. Who’s to blame? Have a heart, because after all, for Freddy Ruppert, “It’s all my fault/ I fell in love in the first place.”

Counting the number of times I’ve already written the word “heart,” it is fair to say there is much heart in this album: heart that is in your face, if only because it is worn on Former Ghosts’ sleeve and you are crying, perhaps not sympathetically, into their armpit. Now, production-wise, this tear-soaked armpit is a cavernous sonic space, which suits the combination of lukewarm synth work that wraps rhythms moving between Mille Plateux glitches (“Until You Are Alone Again”) and timid coldwave stompers (“Chin Up”), where Ruppert indulges in some ‘rocking out’ over his laptop. The combination can often result in a fleeting infatuation, except when Ruppert’s voice warbles forward in the mix, crashing the brief clinch. Besides this intrusion, so often the space simply runs out and a track that’s developed deftly is cut suddenly short. Though it’s tempting to say otherwise, it feels less like enactment, more like oversight.

Because indeed there is a lovely melodic sensibility on stand-out tracks like “New Orleans,” where a simple organ line steps over craftily-shaped percussive stutters. With a similar sense of languishing beauty, “Taurean Nature” is a slow and majestic surfacing of the synth pop vein that runs like a subdued heartbeat through the whole album, whereas album favorite “And When You Kiss Me” is a tight post-punk number carried by sharp and infectious guitar, rubbery bass melody, and a live drum presence.

It’s a strong pivot in an album that is unsatisfying overall, and it’s here where Ruppert’s vulnerable baritone-via-Ian-Curtis is most apparent. At such moments Ruppert’s voice can work to deliver with a pathos that remains above the pathetic. Elsewhere, such as in the dancefloor-friendly “Chin Up” and the weaker “Only In Time,” Danilova’s voice adds gravity to the proceedings. But it’s clear that she’s operating with clipped wings in an environment that, because it is not entirely hers, she can’t quite own. The presence of Yasmine Kittles, of witchy-housey outfit Tearist, fares better. Kittles, like Danilova, checks much of her banshee potential at the door to pepper husky whispered responses to Ruppert’s calls in “Winter’s Year.” Here, in a track that opens feeling like a chiming Christmas anthem for electro-goths, it works; Ruppert’s slightly nasal, monodimensional vocal contortions find their foil.

This is an interesting album for those who’ve been mining the the seam represented by Cold Cave, Zola Jesus, and other company crossing an interest with 80s goth & coldwave, leftfield disco, and newer generation bedroom pop & laptop electronics. No doubt there’s an EP’s-worth of gems buried here that are worth returning to, but for the most part, New Love resembles its thematic obsession: it’s a strained affair.

Links: Former Ghosts - Upset The Rhythm

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