Barbed Wire and Brass, Careless Creatures, David Woodard, Emperor Penguin, Esther Rose, Fixtures, Gerry McGoldrick, Grand Scheme of Things, My Favorite Mistakes, Oh Golly Gee, Palaces and Slums, Scott the Hoople, Summer of Lies, Swelter in Place, Taken for a Ride, The Amplifier Heads, The Junior League, Weak Automatic, Wiretree
The rise and fall and rise of the Extended Play or ‘EP’ format is a story of technological innovation and the changing political economy of the music biz. American record companies RCA Victor and Columbia had a kind of techno arms race going on post-WWII, each vying to dominate the format of music delivery. Columbia pitched the 33rpm long-play or ‘LP’ format in 1948 while rival RCA introduced the 45rpm single in 1949 and the EP in 1952. For a while it was a ‘Betamax versus VHS’ or ‘DOS versus Apple’ sort of battle. But eventually the LP and 45 single came to serve distinct but complementary purposes. EPs, on the other hand, thrived for a while as a cheaper alternative to LPs (both Elvis and the Beatles sold millions of them) but eventually faded out by the late 1950s in the US and late 1960s in the UK. EPs got a death sentence reprieve with the rise of the DIY punk and indie scenes in the late seventies and eighties, basically as a more affordable product for non-mainstream acts. Then, more recently, the post millennium download era has heralded a new golden age of the EP as acts increasingly drip-release their music to maintain maximum public interest. So today we celebrate the EP – long may it hold our attention!
Austin’s Wiretree deliver another reliable slice of strummy, slightly ominous poprock with their 5 song EP Careless Creatures, perfectly embodied on the opening track “All the Girls” and the EP closer “Lovers Broken.” Some trippy keyboards introduce “Back to the Start,” a rockier tune with a distinctive ‘wall of vocals’ attack. The keyboards continue to define things on the mellow “Nightlife” and “Out of Control,” both of which remind me of The Zolas and mid-period OMD in their general atmosphere. For a pretty much solo effort, the band’s creative force Kevin Peroni really turns out a dynamic performance here. I raved about David Woodard’s indie EPs I Used to be Cool and Everything in Between for their endearing jangle hookiness. But now Woodard is ready to join the big leagues with his fabulous new EP Grand Scheme of Things. The production quality and songwriting nuances on this release are Top 40 AM radio quality, in the best sense of the term. Just check out the vocal layering effects on the George Harrison-esque “You Don’t Even Know” that elevate the song to new heights. Personally, I think Woodard’s cover of the The Thorns “Among the Living” improves on the original, adding a strong Crosby, Stills and Nash vibe to the proceedings. But the highlights for me on this release are undoubtedly the two hit-single worthy tracks, “Applebees” and the title track. The former has a slow burn take up, reeling you in with its classic story of failed rock and roll ambition and just the right amount of Fountains of Wayne hooky pathos. The latter sails on a delightful low-key jangle wind until – bam – a killer chorus takes the listener into the stratosphere.
I already lauded Esther Rose and her cover of Nick Lowe’s “Blue on Blue” earlier this fall but the EP it appears on deserves more attention. My Favorite Mistakes is a Sheryl Crow song and the title of Rose’s small collection of covers, which includes the Crow tune and songs written by Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and the afore-mentioned Lowe. Rose’s vocal delivery and musical choices take this classic material in new directions. There are times she vibes the lyrical intimacy of Susanne Vega or vulnerability of Joni Mitchell. I have to add a shout out for her new single “Keeps Me Running,” a winning example of those Vega/Mitchell influences. Former Napalm Sunday frontman/songwriter Gerry McGoldrick remade his sound on his 2017 EP The Great Dispossession in a highly melodic and hooky poprock way. Now he’s returned this year with Swelter in Place and, like many artists, he offers a more stripped-down, solo acoustic effort while still maintaining his more recent poppy elan. “My Good Hand” has a great punky folk feel, very Old 97s. “Summer Friends” has that late period Nick Lowe warm swing. Or there’s my fave, “You Can Only Find Me,” a very Springsteen meets Chuck Prophet ode.
Emperor Penguin kicked off 2020 with a much-celebrated new album, Soak Up the Gravy. Other bands might have kicked back at that point, repair to the pub or perhaps get busy in the garden. But that’s not Emperor Penguin’s style apparently. Instead, they’ve kept busy releasing three EPs over this past summer and fall. June’s Taken for a Ride offers a bit of Revolver flavour on “Maserati” and “Hangar 9” or Rubber Soul on “Belgravia Affair,” while the duet with Lisa Mychols is a pych pop delight, a real should-be hit single. By August the band seemed a bit more introspective on Palaces and Slums, with hooky Fountains of Wayne story songs like “Stay Out of the Sun” and “Blink.” Then there’s the pop lushness of “Hell in a Handcart” or, for contrast, “The Way the Cookie Crumbles” with its ska groove and break-out Squeeze chorus. October delivered Barbed Wire and Brass, a more cerebral rumination on themes like authoritarian leadership (“False Prophet”) and mob justice (“12 Angry Men”). Sonically, the record reminds me of The Beatles in White Album mode while the lyrics are so Elvis Costello or Scandinavia. The Junior League’s Joe Adragna is a master of 1960s musical motifs but on his latest EP Summer of Lies, a collaboration with producer Scott the Hoople, he restricts the focus to a Monkees-meets-country rock mood. “Summer of Flies” combines a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” vocal delivery with a rollicking Monkees pace. Meanwhile “Make Up Your Mind” and “Out on the Side” offer up different sides of the country rock scene, from Brydsian pep to achingly Eagles. The EP is a surprising, refreshing departure from an artist that could hardly be accused of sitting still creatively.
I wrote about The Amplifier Heads earlier this year in themed blog post but didn’t really do justice to what the band has put out, particularly on the EP Oh Golly Gee. At that point I was raving about the delicious “Short Pop Song about a Girl,” a song that seems so familiar and foreign at the same time. Songwriter Sal Baglio combines familiar elements of popular songcraft but manages to turn them inside out: a bit of rumbly guitar, some accordion, a bouncy 1960s song structure, etc. Terms like ‘ironic detachment’ come to mind, except that Baglio seems entirely sincere. “Late to the Prom” is delivered in a style that seems both so 1950s hopeful and post-millennial indifferent. I love the catchy lead guitar bits sprinkled throughout “Short Pop Song about a Girl” and the “I Should Have Known Better” drive to “Man on the Edge of a Ledge Contemplating a Jump.” Brooklyn’s Fixtures blend a host influences on their new EP Weak Automatic. There’s definitely a strong dollop of a New Order melodic bass and synth, evident on the hooky opener “Five Ft One, Six Ft Ten.” But from there the band keeps us guessing. Things turn a bit Fleet Foxes vocally on “The Great Tequila Flood 2000-2018,” in a good way. “Jay’s Riff” has a Grouplove live party feel while “Sunshine” vibes a jazzy take on the Velvets. And I love the way the guitars seem to relentlessly rush the listener on “New Deal.” This band is stylistically going everywhere at once, and I like it.
The ‘extended play’ record began as a competitive technological gambit in a giant corporate game of musical chess, then revived and repurposed itself to serve an indie-DIY music esthetic, and has now emerged as a preferred form of packaging for music in the download/streaming era. It’s more than a sample and not quite a meal. Click on the hyperlinks above and let our artists know whether the EP is really meeting your needs.