Ahh, DJs, how truly little we know thee. You’ve been making the dance floor a funkier place for decades, but your recorded output has been mainly relegated to indie rock bonus discs and bloated B-sides of bands trying to sound “more electronic.” I ask, “Who art thou, really?”
Holy Ghost! are finally liberating themselves from the trappings of DJdom. For the last several years, these guys (New Yorkers Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser) have been making quite a splash as record spinners, producers, and (most famously) remix artists, re-tooling tracks by the likes of MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, Cut Copy, Moby and Phoenix: basically a bunch of bands whose songs pretty much already sound like remixes in the first place. But when it comes to creating their own original work, the drip’s been pretty dismal — a single here, an EP here (2010’s widely praised Static on the Wire) but nothing that would necessarily suggest that these dance devotees were ready to completely step out of the shadows.
With Holy Ghost!, their full-length debut, they’re carrying on in the tradition of many other artists who’ve gotten their start through scattered single releases, basically putting together a mixture of stuff that’s already out there and stuff they’ve done since. It’s a nice strategy for a debut — experimenting on one-off tracks and then figuring out what works best before making the plunge into The Album Format.
I’m not sure if it’s exactly a problem or not, but it seems a tad troubling that the two best tracks on Holy Ghost!, the sexy, late night ‘70s groove-fest “Say My Name” and the bass-driven funk beast “Static on the Wire,” are old songs. But, whatever — these are two excellent tracks that demonstrate why we’re paying attention to these guys in the first place. “Say My Name,” though, with its thick live drums and absorbing production, is actually the first moment to really make all that much of an impression, arriving fourth on the tracklist after an opening trio of fairly standard and slightly sterile dancefloor fare (like the pulsing opener “Do it Again,” which certainly flexes its synth muscles but comes up unsurprising).
Ultimately, Holy Ghost! are at their best when they expand from their synth/programming/synth-bass palette. Diversity looks good on them — like on “Slow Motion,” which opens with choppy pop harmonies that resemble something close to a New Kids on the Block hook. And Paul Rudd’s character in The 40 Year Old Virgin might be pissed at this statement, but the husky belting of former Doobie Brother/forever pop punching bag Michael McDonald manages to improve any song it graces; in this case, it’s Holy Ghost!’s “Some Children,” which is elevated from average dance-funk to transcendent soul by his silky chorus cameo. On these weirder, sexier, more adventurous moments, the hype is more than justified.
“Take me out of context,” goes the chorus to “Do it Again.” That’s the last thing you should do with this album. Here, context is everything. And as it turns out, Holy Ghost! haunts with more consistency under the sheets than on the dance floor.