Album Review: Van Ghost – The Ghost Unit

Van Ghost

photo courtesy of Van Ghost

Van Ghost – The Ghost Unit

The Backstory

Van Ghost

photo courtesy of Van Ghost

I introduced you to Van Ghost during my first days publishing this BlogMy review of the band’s appearance at the Newburyport Music Festival and of the band’s last CD, The Domino Effect, was entry number two of the nine-part “Road Back to Music Journalism” series with which I kicked off Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog. If the world was fair, that would have been the album to launch Van Ghost on a headlining arena tour. But the world isn’t fair, and that’s why I’m able to introduce you to so much great music you may not have heard before. So now I’ll walk you through this exceptional band’s new album.

Van Ghost

photo courtesy of Van Ghost

Bandleader Michael Harrison Berg discusses the recording of this album a year and a half ago in a Vermont studio here on the band’s website. Such an assembly of talent, I want to name them. In addition to Berg on vocals and acoustic guitar, on The Ghost Unit, Van Ghost comprised Jennifer Hartswick (vocals, trumpet), Natalie Cressman (vocals, trombone), Nick Cassarino (vocals, electric guitar), Chris Chew (bass), Dominic Lalli (saxaphone), Grant Tye (electric guitar), Chris Gelbuda (acoustic guitar, keys), Rob Marscher (synths, keys), and John Staten (drums). The SoundCloud stream of the new album lists the band members’ current gigs next to their names in the text, in case you want to catch any of them with their current bands.

Album Review of Van Ghost: The Ghost Unit

Van Ghost - The Ghost Unit

image courtesy of Van Ghost

The influences on this album are more varied than on the band’s prior studio release, but the essence of Van Ghost remains unchanged. This rock band, with its mid-range arena rock center surrounded by soul and funk influences and pop sensibilities, delivers another memorable disc. The soul influence is a bit more apparent than on The Domino Effect; overall this is simply an enjoyable next step from an exceptionally talented rock band.

Disc-opener “Dead Radio Club” follows a laid-back, mildly syncopated rhythm, thriving on vocal harmonies and a mellow edginess, like Toto or Chicago Transit Authority on a mildly subversive rock ‘n roll bender.

Van Ghost

photo courtesy of Van Ghost

“Strength & Pain” continues in the same vein, but the soulfulness is significantly amped up. And it has perhaps a bit more Chicago influence, as the horns play a more prominent role.

“Simplify” is one of the standout tracks in this collection. The ultra-rich harmonies, subtly trickling music bed, and well-placed soft rock guitar solo suggest this could be both a radio staple and an arena rocker.

“Follow Me” adds funk to the Van Ghost mix, with a prominent bass line running through the song, providing a home base to which the riffing always returns, with forays into Chicago-style horns and even very-nearly disco-era-flavored harmonies.

Hard rock guitar debuts in the opening riffs of “Cold Panic,” an almost Foreigner-esque rocker in tempo and mid-level heaviness. This one’ll sneak up on you and be a favorite by the 10th or 20th listen.

Van Ghost

photo courtesy of Van Ghost

For those of us who love an immediate tempo change, “Cold Panic” is the perfect lead-in to perhaps the album’s most heart-laid-bare instance, the more acoustic-flavored “I Ain’t Gonna Fight You, For You,” a lyrically well-conceived number in which the acoustic melody is well-augmented by a dancing electric guitar line whose first solo leads to a mid-song climax… and whose solo of screams and wails end the song as an extension of the vocals, expressing a level of emotion beyond the capability of a voice.

“Fool For the Pain” follows, a song that could be a modernized Quarterflash tune. Ironically (at least in light of that comparison), this is a song where the dominant instrument is guitar, with scarcely a horn to be noticed.

Van Ghost

photo courtesy of Van Ghost

The next track, “If It Ain’t Crazy, Then It Ain’t Love,” is another standout song, with Chicago-esque horns, soft rock guitar riffs, and powerful vocals. Also that vocal smirk that suggests this could be turned into a country song by a talented artist of that genre. Then again, great songs transcend musical classification.

“ATX” follows, a bit of a hard rock screamer with a country edge. I could almost hear Kid Rock doing this song, though he could never match Michael’s vocals. But the tune does thump along and occasionally roar in that vein, leaning on howling heavy metal axework and aggressive drums for power.

Van Ghost

photo courtesy of Van Ghost

But, of course, Van Ghost mellows things out again to close the disc, with “Birds” soaring vocally, a musical sunset that excels at making the sad and poignant pleasant to listen to.

I’d still love to see Van Ghost perform at a big arena, though the festival stage on which I saw them a few years ago was a pretty good substitute. Still, these guys could fill a stadium with sound.

Putting on my imaginary record industry hat, if I were a label exec, I’d pick “Simplify,” “I Ain’t Gonna Fight You, For You,” and “If It Ain’t Crazy, Then It Ain’t Love” as the first three singles, in no particular order, with perhaps “Cold Panic” as a fourth release, though with such a strong disc from beginning to end, it’s hard to go wrong. Go get ahold of these songs. Enjoy them. One of my favorite bands for several years now, Van Ghost is a rare gem of a rock group.

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