Raised on the Sex Pistols and gleaning from early-’90s acid house, Northern Ireland’s David Holmes is a post-punk trapped in a DJ’s body—one who still drops My Bloody Valentine cuts into his sets, as he did at Centro-fly last October. Like Kid Rock and Moby, he uses DJing as a starting point: Where Rock turns basement-party crowd-pleasing into an arena-sized bar band and Moby tempers moody blips and bleeps with the blues, Holmes argues that a DJ’s panoramic tastes destine him for the big screen.
His “Deniro” single a decade ago may have become an ad hoc dancefloor anthem, but its evocative sensibility went beyond mere beat-clustering. Holmes’s drifting debut, 1995’s This Film’s Crap, Let’s Slash the Seats, furthered that notion, imagining electronic music not as chugging chase scene fare or segue fodder, but as a cinematastic end in itself: gimmicky to be sure, but it’s a gimmick that everyone from Barry Adamson to techno icon Jeff Mills has picked up on, perhaps seeing in film a grown-up version of the totality and cohesion that bands and club “scenes” used to hold for them.
Holmes’s 1997 Let’s Get Killed focused his big-screen sensibilities into an aural documentary of New York, at least as a Belfast-born guy who’s seen Taxi Driver and The French Connection would imagine it, with Holmes running around recording predictable bits of local flavor (homeless people dropping rough-hewn nuggets of wisdom, street musicians angling artfully for pedestrian change, etc.) to build his James Bond-themed tracks around. While Killed proved he could balance track-making with the guilty pleasure of found dialogue (see industrial music), what really put Holmes’s chops to the test was his slinky instrumental score for Steven Soderbergh’s 1997 Out of Sight.
With Bow Down to the Exit Sign, Holmes finally puts his money where his sampler is and comes up with his own soundtrack to his own film. In his words, the as-yet-unproduced movie is “Performance meets Midnight Cowboy,” about an innocent sibling venturing to a nasty city to find his asshole brother (Bush’s “Everything Zen,” anybody?), where he gets jacked up on a dyslexia-inducing drug called Eyeburn. Trouble is, unless you bother to unscramble the scriptlike liner notes, all he gives us here is a soundtrack full of two-note garage-rock jams and ringing phones and spiraling incidental overtures. Bow Down basks in reflected cinematic glory more than it comes up with much of its own.
There’s something inspired about a DJ running around the country with a DAT machine recording snatches of noirish dialogue, but from mad stories about PCP labs over walking basslines (“Happiness”) to Primal Scream’s Bobbie Gillespie doing his best Iggy Pop karaoke about “cocaine eyes” (“Sick City”), the results can also sound flat and secondhand. The album’s best track is also its least dramatic: “69 Police” sounds like Fatboy Slim on lithium, with a lilting breakbeat under a wheezing Farfisa so precious and cuddly you want to give it a bowl of milk.
Holmes’s infatuation with movie-trailer Americana reminds me a little of U2 circa Joshua Tree, tromping through the desert dressed as 19th-century prospectors and jamming with B.B. King. Just asking: Do American bands run around dressed up in powdered wigs and tights trying to look like 18th-century Brits? (OK, besides the Upper Crust.)
So the revelation that Holmes can rock with the best of them is a pyrrhic victory, though it may turn a few ravers on to the gory pleasures of Nuggets rock. Where Fatboy Slim’s recent outing proves he can make Jim Morrison sound like the Orb, Holmes does an excellent job of making guest vocalists like Jon Spencer (ranting over the queasy Blues Explosion B side “Bad Things”) and ex-Tricky vocalist Martina Topley-Bird (warbling bruised blues over the aching “Outrun”) sound like they’re in their own element. But when Holmes drops a half-assed lo-fi cut called “Living Room,” with would-be Last Poet Carl Hancock Rux blathering on about the spirit of Coltrane, it reminds you just how great, say, the MC5’s “Black to Comm” was for truly fusing Coltrane and garage rock, rather than just talking about it over yet another two-note bass riff.
This is Holmes’s curse: He is a DJ, he is what he plays (evidently a lot of Stooges and ’70s blaxploitation soundtracks), and that’s that. Rux prophetically paraphrases Bow Down‘s dilemma in the opening “Compared to What”: “We always end up in a rut . . . trying to make it real.” And while Holmes can’t be faulted for applying cut-and-paste to mood and drama as well as sounds and beats, his tracks’ lack of freshness still adds up to an ambitious letdown. Best Bet: Wait for the movie.