For nearly a decade, Van Ghost has existed in the shadows; revealing themselves sparingly at select and special engagements from New York City to Costa Rica. The brainchild of Chicago music industry impresario Michael Harrison Berg, the extended Van Ghost band is a familial diaspora sprawling the continental 48; over the years, this collective has tread a road map in revival. In what might very well be the outfit’s swan song, Berg, Jennifer Hartswick and the current evolution of Van Ghost are finally unveiling The Ghost Unit, a magnetic collection that delivers huge hooks, heavy hearts, and heroic harmonies in abundance. An album in tradition and in spirit, the band employs several styles but collectively never strays far from the ghostly aesthetic.
Listen to the album streaming below, and continue reading for an in-depth review of the new release.
After an extended period of songwriting, often in tandem with the venerable Nashville/Chicago song factory Chris Gelbuda, in December 2014 Berg got the call: it was time to round up The Ghost Unit. He and Hartswick enlisted a veritable murderer’s row to manifest Van Ghost’s third album: longtime VG collaborators Natalie Cressman (trombone) and guitarist Nick Cassarino (The Nth Power), SoCal drummer John Staten (ex-KDTU, Pimps of Joytime), guitarist Grant Tye (Sonia Dada), bassist Chris Chew (The Word, North Mississippi All-Stars), the multi-instrumentalist Chris Gelbuda, and Hartswick’s trusty keyboard foil Rob Marscher (Addison Groove Project, Matisyahu) all decamped to Westford, VT to record at the legendary The Barn studio.
With Phish’s engineer Ben Collette behind the boards and capturing the sessions straight to analog two-inch tape, the colossal crew spent five days recording fourteen songs, totally ensconced in their mission. For an enchanting week deep in the Green Mountains, the vibe in The Barn was communal, and at times spiritual; as the band connected in between takes with gospel sing-alongs harkening back to Cassarino and Staten’s childhood traditions. In summoning holy spirits, the band unknowingly adopted a practice that dripped onto the greasier funk arrangements, and seeped into the harmonies of the folkier numbers.
The record itself is a tremendous artistic statement, the earnest, rootsy, no-frills perspective resonates within the listener. Coming out of the gates with a massive slab of prominent pop, “Dead Radio Club” makes it clear that this is not a jam-band. Song craft is at the forefront of this focused endeavor, and the cuts are too crucial to be buried in a bunch of shredding. Don’t tell that to Cassarino though, whose opening bout of axe-slinging slays with a troubadour tone that is downright demonstrative. As the vocal harmonies swell behind him, Nicky Cakes ups the ante with every quotation and builds the opening number effectively. Hitting second is the contemporary mid-tempo funk of “Strength & Pain,” a confident stride down Steely Dan avenue, big, bright hooks and a monster chorus drunk on the feels. Marscher’s analog synth, propelled by sultry sax interplay courtesy of Big Gigantic’s Dominic Lalli, takes the tune off into the stratosphere. The alt-country reggae vibes that populate “Simplify,” co-written with Grant Tye, are matrimoniously adjoined with a giant pop refrain, a bombastic alchemy that belies the song’s niche, humble beginnings.
On earlier efforts like 2009’s Melodies for Lovers, 2012’s The Domino Effect, Berg’s admitted admiration for the likes of Wilco and Ryan Adams was evident, but the trajectory of Van Ghost’s folkie-Americana styles steadily broadened with each release. On The Ghost Unit, the adventuring achieves mightily, doing so on many fronts: musical, lyrical, emotional, and thematic. The songwriting and execution are indeed praiseworthy, yet this collective of players channel something serendipitous and spectacular, the sum of these prodigious parts dripping in some kind of special sauce.
The Van Ghost project exists as a living, breathing testament to Berg’s bond with trumpet player, vocalist, and renaissance woman Jennifer Hartswick; on The Ghost Unit, their magnificent, decade-long partnership has never shone brighter. “Follow Me” is a Hartswick showcase, unleashing a chunkier funk than found anywhere in the Van Ghost discography. Again, a heavyweight hook and undeniable chorus cement the tune not only in their own ever-diversifying canon, but as a single that would find itself equally at home on Sirius Jam_ON or an adult contemporary playlist. The song was written specifically for Hartswick in mind, though it’s actually Cressman who sings the lead in the bridge.
The empress affectionately known as J-HA is in full effect throughout the record, and some of the most exemplary performances of her career are found within The Ghost Unit. Case in point is the breathtaking, Gelbuda-penned “Fool for the Pain;” a steamy and seductive serenade that sees Jen emulating a late-70’s Stevie Nicks, all the while making the kiss-off entirely her own. Hartswick lures listeners into a lair of lucidity, while Berg and the boys caustically cook beneath her siren song.
There are a few selections that are, in their indie-alt-country roots, set apart from the rest of The Ghost Unit. It is the unmitigated genius of Chris Gelbuda at work; the talented singer-songwriter who has worked with Meghan Trainor and John Legend. Gelbuda plays all over the record, and lends his magic touch to collaborate with Berg a pair of choice country love songs. “I Ain’t Gonna Fight You, For You” could be a platinum Luke Bryan anthem, a scorn lover’s reality check, with an unforgettable refrain. Cassarino steps up with some muscular, lyrical guitar-work to accentuate the vibe, while the drums tastefully make the bed. “If It Ain’t Crazy” another pop-country Gelbuda/Berg gem, takes a detour from Nashville to New Orleans around the two minute mark, as Cressman and Hartswick’s brass tones hint towards a Second Line swagger, before Cassarino’s patented background croon redirects the tune back towards Music City, U.S.A, by way of Muscle Shoals. In the album’s most definitive juxtaposition, “ATX” follows with some grimy, sludgey, unadulterated arena rock that would have ZZ Top shaking in their platform boots. A powerful descending bridge and empowering, euphoric chorus, this song was made for air-guitar in the shower, and celebrating with hometown homies.
After sitting on the album for over a year, Berg has finally decided that the time is now for the world to hear this piece of art, an album in the truest essence of the format. The Ghost Unit might be a final salvo for Berg’s vision as it pertains to Van Ghost; if indeed it is, then the record succeeds as a dynamic and defining document- confident, contemporary, relevant, and revelatory.
[Photos by Zach Nelson]