The Value Of EPs

Dom, the singer and guitarist for the band of the same name, engages in an unusual practice for young white males playing guitar-driven “indie” music: he doesn’t put out albums.  Dom has released two EPs, Sun Bronzed Greek Gods and Family Of Love, which include 12 songs and roughly 36 minutes of music.  In addition, Dom has recorded a single with a member of the band Cults, and four or five tracks (2 of which are instrumental) are circulating around the internet in one form or another.  But Dom appears to have no interest in releasing albums, eschewing the concept that has ruled rock and pop since the 60s, when commercially and critically successful albums like the Who’s Tommy, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band redefined long play records, moving them away from the singles plus filler model towards a more cohesive and unified concept.

The album as we know it is a relic of old technology.  The LP (long play), introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, was made of thinly grooved vinyl that rotated 33 1/3 times per minute. It allowed for more than 20 minutes of music per side – a significant upgrade over the records that played at 78 rpm — and for many years, the album was simply the amount of music an artist could squeeze onto an LP.  The rise of the compact disc and digital technology more or less nullified this constraint, but tradition has maintained the importance of the album as it was.  The EP (extended play), which initially played at 45 rpm, was introduced a few years after the LP as competition, by the RCA Victor compnay.  But the EP was not as popular as the LP, especially in the US.  It is a more loosely defined — over time EPs have been released in several different record formats.  Punk and the rise of independent labels in the 80s are often credited with popularizing EPs.

Nowadays, “indie” musicians frequently gain initial attention by releasing EPs, but the ultimate goal is almost always to release longer sets of material.  Some bands also use EPs to release a hodgepodge of work for hardcore fans — covers, alternate versions of album tracks, or studio outtakes – while other bands actively release new music on EPs.  The band Pavement was famous for including some of their best songs on EPs and not putting these songs on albums.  But the EP usually works as an introduction to a young band, as something a more established band uses to appease fans and keep them interested between albums, or perhaps as a signal that a band is changing its musical direction so fans aren’t too shocked when the new album comes out.  As the story goes, the EP is largely an accessory, while the album is the main event, the medium where the musician can truly and seriously express his or her vision – a principle akin to that summarized by Kelefa Sanneh in his 2004 Times piece on rockism: “Rock bands record classic albums, while pop stars create ‘guilty pleasure’ singles.”

Is the quest for albums the right one for a young band? Take a group like the Cloud Nothings, who gained a following with a string of singles and short releases that emphasized speed and relatable sentiments like exclusion and heartbreak, but didn’t sacrifice melody in the name of momentum.  On Cloud Nothings’ first album (Cloud Nothings), melody became predictable, momentum repetitive.  The opening track links force with harmonies that evoke the Beach Boys, but after the gratifyingly circular guitars of the fourth song, “Forget You All The Time,” the album begins to feel monotonous. Guitar leads bleed together, shouts become hard to distinguish, lead singer Dylan Baldi’s habit of repeating syllables begins to wear. While a short explosion of feeling seemed poignant, an extended version grew tiresome.

The band Happy Birthday, whom Dom has mentioned admiringly in interviews, faces a similar problem over the length of an album.  While maintaining a statelier pace than the Cloud Nothings, Happy Birthday share a similar love of fuzz and sweet, tuneful hooks, with drummer Ruth Garbus adding an appealing high end to harmonies and backing vocals. Happy Birthday’s debut album (also self-titled) starts with “Girls FM,” half pounding guitars, half gooey vocal bubbling.  The crunch of “2 Shy,” the twisting “Perverted Girl,” and the affectingly longing “Subliminal Message” – with a burning guitar solo and oscillating movement that mimics the uncertainty of early love – effectively mix sex (or lack thereof), comedy, and rock and roll.  However, over the course of the album, the frequent shifting from distorted and pounding to clear, high harmonizing experiences diminishing returns – for example, the chorus of “I Want To Stay (I Run Away)” sucks all the energy out of the song.  In addition, the riffs are less dynamic. “Zit” feels like one overlong thud, and “Pink Strawberry Shake” can’t decide whether to bash through the dirt or spiral off into psychedelia, ultimately ending up as an undeveloped half-thought.

In contrast, the shorter template of the EP allows Dom to maintain interest and consistency. The Sun Bronzed Greek Gods EP was purportedly recorded in a bedroom, but the murky recording quality is unable to obscure the appealing melodies.  A song like “Burn Bridges” builds around a sturdy, symmetrical set of chords, the foundation of songs ranging from MGMT’s “Kids,” to Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy,” to Otis Redding ballads.  There is something inherently likeable about a riff that rises and falls – simplicity, predictability, balance, closure — whether played loud on a keyboard in “Burn Bridges” or fuzzed up on guitar, as in the hook of “Rude As Jude.”  Family Of Love traded in the bedroom for a studio; it’s bookended with two short tales of romance and desire – one rides a telephone tone riff, the other a keyboard tinkle — that temper sentiment with amusement.  In between, there is the swirling “Family Of Love,” where guitars loop warily around each other, pitting clean and high notes against thick strums; the urgent pull of “Damn;” and the synth-fueled kick of “Happy Birthday Party.”

Focusing on songs in small doses may have aided Dom’s rapid growth as a songwriter across only a handful of songs.  Family Of Love and some of the new songs making their way around the internet display new techniques that were not present on Sun Bronzed Greek Gods. In “Damn,” Dom lays out the entire song in the intro, playing two themes at the beginning of the song which reappear again throughout. The first theme is a repeated set of four notes (the second two higher than the first two), followed by a set of six notes that embellishes the original sequence, as if moving from initial hesitation to decisive action. This sequence reemerges during the chorus to provide pleasing resolution. The second theme contains a couple of notes, each repeated multiple times, and this series serves as the rhythm guitar throughout the song.  Since the listener is exposed to these riffs at the start, their return later is like the arrival of an old friend you haven’t seen in a while, maybe someone you didn’t even know you were missing. Dom has also started segueing between very different guitar sounds on the bridges of his songs.  On “Things Change,” Dom inserts a squall of notes played high on the neck of the guitar about two thirds of the way through the song.  When these high peals drop away, the anchoring bass and soft, warm synth tones carry reassuringly into the chorus.  He employs a similar technique on the B-side “Judy.”  Dom knocks things temporarily out of whack and then puts them back together, and we thank him for it.

There are other advantages to the EP as a medium.  On seven- or five-song releases, an artist doesn’t have to worry much about front-loading or sequencing to build up to a finale. Traits that might get annoying over the course of an entire album – in Dom’s case, for example, the sonic fog hanging over Sun Bronzed Greek Gods, the use of studio effects in Family Of Love, mumbled vocals that weaken the emotional impact of harsh lines in “Damn,” the unapologetic excess of “Living In America” (“It’s so sexy/ to be living in America”) and its younger comrade in celebration, “Happy Birthday Party” – are given less weight. Since listeners are only exposed to songs in small batches, there isn’t enough of any one negative to obscure the positive.

Albums have been the standard in guitar driven pop and rock – especially anything considered “indie” – for over forty years, and this is unlikely to change.  But for a young band with good ideas, it’s not always the place to start, and it can unintentionally return an album to the pre-Sgt. Pepper’s model: a few killers, mainly filler. An EP may capture and reflect a brief surge of creativity and fun, the sort of spurt that can be hard to maintain for a long time.  Concise bursts of inspired songwriting can be just as effective, if not more so, than longer-winded but less interesting statements.

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1 Comment

  1. I think this is a fascinating comment on the ways the music industry and artistic instincts intersect and guide each other.

    Reply

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