I hesitate to use the phrase "greatest living Irishman" while Shaquille O'Neal is still shuffling his size 23s around the NBA, but Belfast musician and DJ David Holmes is certainly one of the most talented still to find fame in the States. Which is surprising considering that his new album the The Holy Pictures will be his fifth full-length release, or ninth if you count his mix albums. And then there are his movie soundtracks, at least five of which have been released on CD, not to mention his work as a remixer and a movie producer and ...
And at this point we begin to understand why, despite his undoubted talents, Holmes languishes in relative obscurity here in the US. Like many artists before him, he has committed a cardinal sin in the eyes of the American music industry: eclecticism. The techno thump of his first album This Film's Crap Let's Slash the Seats in 1995 tagged him as an electronic artist. But, with each subsequent release, he has become harder to pin down, and therefore less likely to win radio airplay or find a comfortable spot in your local record store.
First he let loose with a headlong rush of big beat and drum'n'bass on 1997's Let's Get Killed. Things got a little muddier with Bow Down to the Exit Sign in 2000 as he added dark dub and even a little indie into the mix. Then two years later he pulled a retro-inspired one-eighty by first releasing his mix album of dirty funk and Sixties soul Come Get It, I Got It, then forming a dirty, funky soul band of his own to record David Holmes Presents the Free Association. In between times, he has also released crate-digging mix albums that veer from strange sci-fi pop to funky modern hip-hop, while never pausing for a moment to consider the consequences.
The only coherent thread throughout has been an unmistakable cinematic quality to his output; his music is most often described as "a soundtrack in search of a movie." However, this is less true of his actual movie soundtrack albums, which, confusingly, are less like standard movie tie-ins and are more excellent albums in their own right (best known are his collaborations with Steven Soderbergh on Out of Sight and the Ocean's movies).
Which brings us, slightly disoriented, but also intrigued, to The Holy Pictures, 10 years in the making and his most personal and accessible work yet. Inspired by the death of his mother in 1996, this is an album firmly rooted in the past, but one that thankfully doesn't wallow in it. A lifetime's worth of diverse influences are combined to create something fresh and (oh yes) full of surprising new directions.
"Love Reign Over Me" has a dazed trippiness that invokes the spirit of the Happy Mondays or Stone Roses, but is more of a friendly, fuzzy-toned flashback than a full-blooded ecstasy-fuelled nostalgia trip. "I Heard Wonders" and "Melanie" both owe a debt to the retro-modern drone of Stereolab, while washes of shoegazing guitar noise creep in all over the place. The atmospherics of Brian Eno's ambient works underpin several tracks. And when David Holmes sings (a first on any of his releases), he does so with a low, breathing rasp that brings to mind The Jesus and Mary Chain or Spacemen 3.
There are also plenty of dance floor influences, but they are muted and subtle. For example, the instrumental "Story of the Ink" incorporates a deep bass melody that sounds like a distant echo of a half-remembered acid house sample. Elsewhere, rhythms range from the complex metronomic percusiveness of Kraftwerk to more straightforward four-to-the-floor beats, but to call this electronic music would be to ignore its organic soul.
Because David Holmes has an amazing ear for the textures of sound. The instrumental tracks are so rich in tone that words are barely missed, and the whole album seems sepia tinted (or perhaps a more accurate visual metaphor would be that pinkish wash that slowly creeps into old color photographs taken in the Seventies and Eighties). In particular, final track "The Ballad of Sarah and Jack" has the kind of irresistible emotional power that will make you stop whatever you are doing and gaze wistfully into space, contemplating the moment and your surroundings in all their sudden, unexpected beauty.
Which is the best thing about listening to music that comes across like a soundtrack in search of a movie: you get to provide the pictures.
David Holmes's The Holy Pictures is released November 18, 2008 on Universal.