all photos: Lauren Bulbin; all words: PR
“Less engaging was opener Holy Ghost!. The Brooklyn duo falls in line with a spat of DFA signees – Shit Robot, Woolfy – who do nothing wrong while not doing anything particularly right. The 80s touchstones are spot-on, but they’re never transcended towards something greater.”
That was me kind of being a dick this March, when Holy Ghost! last visited DC. Over the interim months between then and the band’s return to the 9:30 Club last Wednesday, I’ve on occasion wondered if I came down too hard on the New York duo, or if I was altogether wrong in my assessment. This degree of wholly unnecessary introspection directly correlates to how much I’ve listened to the band’s self-titled full-length debut this year, which is to say, quite a bit.
But even though Holy Ghost! is a record with a handful of sparkling pop songs, I’m not quite ready to walk back my take on Holy Ghost! proper. As I’ve said elsewhere, this band is defined by impeccable taste, as heard in its spit-shined production and a meticulously curated set of influences. Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser are neither daring nor particularly original. Their recent release of a pristine and perfectly serviceable recreation of Ministry’s “I Wanted To Tell Her” pretty much says it all: these guys know sound, but there’s a sense retro-fetish in how they apply that knowledge, a feeling akin to Gus Van Zant’s shot-by-shot remake of “Psycho”.
Holy Ghost! is an exercise in audiophiliac indulgence. Like a decedent piece of cheesecake, it’s empty calories, I know, but, man, can it taste good.
Fortunately then, as Holy Ghost! has gained steam – and corporate sponsorship – it has siphoned increased revenues back into its live show, which now boasts a six-man lineup, requires enough gear to fill the 9:30 Club stage, and sounds absolutely fantastic. Booking the band at a venue of such capacity may have been a stretch – it would have had much better luck filling the more modest Black Cat – but hearing the expanded setup on the 9:30 Club’s booming soundsystem was a treat I’m glad someone took the hit on.
There were few curveballs in the Thanksgiving eve set: Holy Ghost! visited all of its debut LP not to prominently feature horns (“Slow Motion”) or a member of the Doobie Brothers (“Some Children”); its efforts at tightly-constructed synth pop (“Jam for Jerry”, “Wait and See”, “Hold My Breath”) remain overwhelmingly superior to looser attempts at funk (“Static on the Wire”, “I Know, I Hear”) or slow-burning jams (“Say My Name”); and Alex Frankel still can’t sing.
That last point remains the only significant impediment to Holy Ghost! pulling off a great performance. No matter how much the band builds around Frankel – and no matter how skilled a musician and producer he may be – the man is just a thoroughly underwhelming frontman. And not to pile on, but the near year he’s spent on the road has not made his stage presence any less wooden. (Side note: while he sounds much better on record, Frankel certainly does not have “soulful vocals,” unless your definition of “soulful” is “doesn’t sound like a robot and/or Juan MacLean.”)
Frankel is but one cog in the Holy Ghost! live experience though, and the technical proficiency and sonic fidelity it exhibits in further developing its already full arrangements (see: the patient build of “Hold On”) is enough to make me forgive – or at least look past – any shortcomings, his or his band’s.
Holy Ghost! was preceded by an onslaught of dance acts: Eli Escobar, Midnight Magic, and Jessica 6. The last featured ex-pats from disco outfit Hercules and Love Affair, and while displaying plenty of flash, didn’t leave much of a substantive impression.