Warp + Weft: Consider The EP

Let’s be clear: Of the tens of thousands of bands out there right now, the majority will never write even one truly great song. A couple thousand might come up with one amazing tune, and several hundred might make a great full-length record, but right up in between those two groups is the group that might just make a killer EP.

Problem is, a lot of those bands are going to make full-lengths instead, and squander what could have been a great EP. A current example: If French Kicks’ latest album, Swimming, had been the Swimming EP and only consisted of the first five tracks, it would have easily been one of the top ten releases of 2008. But instead, the 12-track record is a mish-mash of those stunning first five tracks and a ho-hum back end that does little other than rehash that opening nickel of genius, minus the compelling hooks.

The kind of talent it takes to be a good to great band—or even to write one good to great song—has very little to do with what it takes to make a great album. A great album has more to do with vision and conception: An ability to balance consistency with exploration over an extended form. But lots of bands can pull together that kind of focus for three to seven songs, and the end result is often far more compelling than the same material with another four to six lesser songs thrown in the mix.

So bands: Listen up and consider narrowing your scope, because even bands capable of great albums have benefited from the circumscribed range of the EP.

The Get-Up Kids
Red Letter Day
Doghouse Records
1999

In an era when bands like The Promise Ring and Braid were turning out albums like Nothing Feels Good and Frame and Canvas, The Get-Up Kids could only muster Four Minute Mile, which just couldn’t stand up as a whole to what else was out there. But then they released the Red Letter Day EP and all was forgiven. The one-two punch of “Anne Arbour” and “Mass Pike” that ends this disc guarantee that it ramps up into two of the finest songs The Get-Up Kids ever wrote, and the version of the title track is far superior to its incarnation on the follow-up LP, Something to Write Home About. There’s nothing weak on this record, and The Get-Up Kids show how tight and perfectly honed they can be for five songs, if not ever again on a full-length.

Stream “Mass Pike” below:

Voxtrot
Raised By Wolves
Cult Hero Records
2005

The huge swell of buzz for Voxtrot in 2005 was largely generated by this EP and its sister, Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, & Wives, and here we have a fine example of how exciting an EP can be. It’s a way to deliver a tantalizing taste of potential that’s distinctly different from the rush of one good song. Of course, that one good song here is “The Start of Something,” which is an endearingly ragged and lo-fi take on the kind of pop minted by The Smiths. The giddy rush of the chorus gives way brilliantly to the darkness of the bridge, and thus are great songs made. “Missing Pieces” is nearly as good, taking its inspiration more from early Wire and Gang of Four, and “Long Haul” is all winsome charm undergirded by a sweet birdsong. A proven formula for a great EP: Two midtempo pop tunes, two rockers, and one ballad.

Stream “The Start of Something” below:

Blackalicious
A2G EP
Quannum Projects
1999

Hip-hop doesn’t see a lot of EPs. In fact, one of the widely acknowledged weaknesses of the genre is a tendency towards overlong albums stuffed with skits and effluvia. Thus does Blackalicious’ stopgap release between Melodica and Nia stand out all the more as a breath of fresh air. The showstopper here is “Alphabet Aerobics,” which finds emcee Gift of Gab running down couplets of lines focusing on each letter of the alphabet against Cut Chemist’s ever-accelerating track. But “Deception” is still one of Blackalicious’ best songs, and it shines brighter here than it does on Nia, where it’s consigned to the back half of a (naturally) somewhat overlong record.

Stream “Alphabet Aerobics” below:

Crime in Choir
Crime in Choir EP
Omnibus Records
2002

An instrumental band from San Francisco featuring members of Hella and one guy who used to play bass in At the Drive-In (Kenny Hopper), make frenetic instrumental music that draws on elements of jazz, post-hardcore, funk, and pretty much everything in between. As music that leans heavily on technical impressiveness and and dusty, lo-fi ambiance, it’s prime material for an EP. There aren’t a lot of catchy melodies or sensitive playing here, and so it seems like twice as many tracks wouldn’t improve the music’s impact any. “Come Here, Raider” is just an unbelievably kinetic and blistering track and “A Girl Named Jesus” is one of the best song titles, like, ever.

Stream “Come Here, Raider” below:

Mars Volta
Tremulant EP
Gold Standard Laboratories
2001

This EP, featuring many more and more significant former members of At the Drive-In, has turned out to be one of The Mars Volta’s best releases. Scummier and grittier by far than any of their full-length releases, the Tremulant EP always seems to be teetering on the edge of veering off into the abyss. “Cut That City” rises up out of a wash of warping electronic fuzz to slash and burn, and “Eunuch Provocateur” disappears into a loop of dubbed out drums after unleashing a roiling and vicious track that’s more palpably evil and dangerous than anything else the band has released so far. The Mars Volta could only improve if they could find their way back to being this bloody and damaged.

Stream “Cut That City” below:

The Decemberists
5 Songs
Hush Records
2003

Before the pseudo-prog epics, the concept records, the kooky stage outfits, there was just this, the misnamed 5 Songs, which actually has six songs. In light of all that has followed for The Decemberists, their debut EP looks almost unbelievably straightforward and simple, but that’s its particular charm. The words have all the sweet and complex poetry of later releases, but the music is stripped down to an acoustic core that lets Meloy’s labyrinthine stories breathe. Listening to 5 Songs is a good reminder of how both shocking and obvious it is that The Decemberists have actually made it as a pop band, and good reminder that sometimes the good guys win.

Stream “Apology Song” below:

White Light Riot
The Dark Is Light Enough
Self-released
2006

The Alarmists
Detail of Soldiers
Self-released
2006

This pair of EPs by two young local bands heralded great things and a new wave of power-pop in the Twin Cities. White Light Riot’s debut EP was as brassy and big as The Alarmists’ was moody and spare, and both found their way into the good graces of critics and fans. WLR’s “Out of Sight” wound itself around giant guitar hooks and an infectious chorus while The Alarmists’ “Some Things Never Stop” was the standout on their disc, built around a sprightly piano line and a grasping falsetto refrain. The debut records by both bands tempered expectations a bit, but really only reinforced the strengths of the EP as a format. Not every great band can manage even a good album, but any decent band should be able to turn out a great EP.

Stream “Out of Sight” by White Light Riot below:

Stream “Some Things Never Stop” by The Alarmists below:

More than any other format, the EP is both a harbinger and a scenic overlook. A great single smacks of luck, of forces perhaps temporarily aligned in an artist’s favor. A great album speaks to a band’s maturity, focus, and vision. But a great EP drips with possibility when it’s a debut release, with off-handed charm when it lands between full-length releases, and at all times with that blend of implied scope and tangible but brief realization common to the three-day weekend, the short story, the crossword puzzle, the summer camp hook-up, spring in Minnesota, the sweet corn season, and the afternoon delight.

Got a favorite EP? Discuss it on the Backstage blog right here.

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