Sunday, May 22, 2016
Which brings us to the new eponymous, debut album by Ghost Culture. The cynic in me would say that this is a nice record to listen to while waiting for the next Matthew Dear comes out. Moody, house-influenced, post punk-derived synth pop is what's offered up here and it's done very well. Dear is only one of the more recent examples of a someone working in this vein. You could go back 10 years to Mount Sims' excellent Wild Light to find a similar sound. Or Colder's Again from 2003. Really it's a sound that's the embodiment of a post-techno/house nostalgia for New Order/Depeche Mode/Cabaret Voltaire's continuation of Joy Division, or Iggy's The Idiot, or Kraftwerk, or Nico, or hell, go back to Lotte Lenya. You see where I'm going with this? Thinking of James Greenwood (who is Ghost Culture) as a poor man's Matthew Dear isn't exactly fair, but nonetheless it's what I thought when I heard this album.
Ghost Culture is definitely in the same arena, but it doesn't move with the same funkiness that Dear's records do. You can hear Laid Back's "White Horse," Newcleus' "Jam On It," or Eddy Grant's "Time Warp" in Dear. Not so much in Ghost Culture. This gets to the critical standard of success for all dark, synth-driven dance music: how close (or far) does the music fall from the combination of European and African American music? Whether it's Africa Baambaataa's use of Kraftwerk for "Planet Rock," Detroit techno or Chicago House's appropriation of the same thing, Donna Summer's soul vocals over Moroder's robo-funk, or Can's Teutonic take on James Brown and the Velvet Underground - there needs to be a solid foundation in both musics for it to truly work. It's what separates Depeche Mode from someone like Covenant. David Gahan is by no means a soul singer, but he's practically Al Green compared to Eskil Simonsson.
One unique aspect of Ghost Culture is the singing. Although Greenwood uses the same monotone vocal style that this style requires, his delivery is breathier, and more approachable than many of the practitioners. Matthew Dear has a great vocal delivery, but it doesn't let you in as a listener. There's a distance in his blank intoning, which, although "cool," doesn't display very much vulnerability. Greenwood's voice, intentionally or not, sounds knowable and possible of doubt. The emotional range still doesn't extend much beyond wistful melancholy and wry rumination, but it's still a huge improvement over anything on Metropolis records. He even sounds a bit like a stoned Ray Davies on "Glaciers."
Despite the fact that it's not terribly original, this will likely make my top ten of the year. It's a good record and it grows on me with each listen. I'm interested to hear more from Greenwood, particularly his voice. I hope he broadens the palette a bit, maybe bring in some saxophones, steel drums, actual piano, back-up singers, etc. He mostly needs to trust himself a bit more wherever that takes him, whether someone like me agrees or not.