Holy Ghost!, the Brooklyn-based electronic duo of Nick Millhiser, and Alex Frankel, has always been a band out of time. The group rose up in the second half of the 2000s with a string of impressive singles and remixes that faithfully recreated disco and funk, working on DFA with artists like LCD Soundsystem and Cut Copy at a time when that subsection of dance was at its prime. With a style closer to the latter — as they eschewed the irony and post-punk inclinations of LCD — the duo emerged as one of the stronger disco revival artists of the period. Unlike Yacht or Chromeo, Holy Ghost! never delved into kitsch, but instead played it straightforward, sticking to a formula and doing it very well.
When they were on, they could put together great material. Songs like “Jam For Jerry” or a 2011 cover of Ministry’s “I Wanted To Tell Her” featuring Nancy Whang found them tapping into a sense of jubilance and urgency that elevated the music beyond many of the contemporaries of that time. After four years of being known for singles, they put out a good eponymous debut in 2011 followed by 2013’s Dynamics, in which their penchant for sticking to a framework started to catch up to them with diminishing returns. After remaining fairly silent for three years (apart from a compilation of remixes, last year’s Work For Hire), they have emerged with a four-song EP that aims to recapture the spark of their early material without the pressure a full-length album brings. As a band that has always had issues with too much filler on their records, it should be a smart move for the band.
Technically, Holy Ghost! has never sounded cleaner or as proficient than on the four tracks here. The amount of effort that went into the four songs is apparent, as they feel meticulously crafted. The duo have never made poor quality recordings, but Crime Cutz feels like their most expansive release to date. Like an engine powering up, the title track steadily builds momentum over its seven minutes to make for a pounding, soulful approach that ratchets tension without ever releasing it. That sense of propulsive energy benefits them on “Compass Point” as well, where focused verses get paired with sweeping choruses. By the time the horns come in, the song moves to a higher level, making for the most danceable moment of the EP.
The main issue with the set lies in the fact that while those two tracks are immaculately produced, they don’t quite have the spark that made those early singles memorable, and the other two tracks are largely forgettable. “Stereotype” finds the band acting self-aware and embracing their role as a herald of a familiar style, but takes a critical view of generational shifts in terms of technology. It’s not quite a “get off my lawn moment,” but using a retort like, “Just hold your cell phone closer” as a criticism doesn’t help sound any less dated. They’re chasing some interesting ideas, but the lyrics are so vague that it keeps them from making a pointed criticism, which would help. The closer, “Footsteps”, opens with the uncomfortable moment of having to hear someone sing “TFW” out loud and never really improves from there. Restraint can certainly be used as a key element in dance music, but here it prevents the song from taking off, ending the brief EP on a muted note that doesn’t quite reconcile with the intense build that opens it.
At best, Crime Cutz is a decent release by a talented group that clearly has potential to make some great retro records. At its lowest points, it’s filled with clumsy lyrics and meandering tracks that never really go anywhere. Calling Holy Ghost! derivative isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they aren’t trying to do anything more than write fun, faithful disco pop songs. It’s just that when playing it this straight, the songs need to stick, and only “Compass Point” really does that here. Coming three years after their last album, Crime Cutz doesn’t feel like a substantial follow-up. When that finally comes, it may be time for the band to vary their approach.
Essential Tracks: “Compass Point”