by Ben Harris-Roxas
The EP is the perfect way to buy music. It’s a small collection that can be produced and consumed quickly, without any padding. They’re what music should be; a bunch of related tracks, no (or less) junk. In contrast albums are painful, bloated muddles designed to punish the listener.
Music is best engaged with thematically. Track downloads are fantastic but they also lead to endless playlists of pop-ish singles. Really engaging with a musician’s work beyond the level of individual songs can lead to something great. You understand their style and what their message is*. It gives the listener a sense of satisfaction and understanding. Ideally this would take the form of the perfect album – music that takes you on a journey with no wasted tracks.
When was the last time you heard an album that was like that though? They’re rare. So rare they often become genre and generation-defining. Albums are increasingly ego projects. The democratisation of music production (yes, I used that horrible phrase) also means less production oversight. There’s nobody saying “enough already”. Just because a CD holds 70 minutes of music doesn’t mean an album should be that long but too often they are. If we’re honest, any album that’s longer than 45 minutes has already tipped over into an act of public masturbation. Most albums have two or three good tracks with 10-12 forgettable ones. Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ryan Adams, your time-out hasn’t finished yet.
EPs overcome this by giving you three to eight related tracks without the flab. There’s no need to stick to some predetermined notion of how long it needs to be or how many songs need to be on it. EPs are also less intimidating to create and release than ‘the perfect album’. A musician can knock out up to three EPs a year if they’re prolific. No more waiting 15 years for Chinese Democracy. It’s a way for musicians to stay fresh and relevant. It’s a way for audiences to stay engaged with a musician and not to feel ripped off. Some great Australian examples have been released by Anomie, Moonbase Commander, Richard in Your Mind, JaysWays and raven in the past year or so.
Sadly EPs don’t get the critical love they deserve and aren’t written about as much as albums. They’re not seen as ‘artist-defining’, though with electronic distribution this is changing. EPs are now common on Bandcamp and iTunes. They’re certainly easier to find than they used to be in the CD-era. There’s even plenty of vinyl EP releases for idiotic hipsters. It’s also worth making a distinction between EPs as collections of new tracks and dodgy extended single releases with endless remixes. Those can be fun but they’re a different thing.
Why does this issue even matter? If people want to churn out 70 minute albums why should I care? Surely more music means better value, doesn’t it? Not really. If you can’t filter yourself you’re a creative spambot. You have to be as tough on yourself as your harshest critic in order to improve. You can’t let this self-criticism overwhelm you though – artists still have to actually create stuff. EPs overcome this tension by putting out a tightly produced collections that have a broader theme or feeling, without the padding.
For every album you love in its entirety, how many others do you have to skip every second track on? Shorter is better.
* The messages are definitely there. You only need to look to Tik Tok for a perfect critique of late-stage capitalism.
I come to praise albums, not to bury EPs. Mr Harris-Roxas makes many good points in favour of the EP, and many of my favourite tracks from my favourite artists have appeared on EPs (think the Clouds, Autechre, Hood). I’d say Autechre’s Envane, Anvil Vapre, Garbage and Anti EPs are classically artist-defining.
But I have always been one to want more of the good shit. And sometimes the good shit just means the great vibe you get from certain artists. I love the immersive organic artifice of The Future Sound of London, and in the mid ’90s I thrilled to their 70+ minute CD-filling works as much as I did to their frankly album-length EPs. The difference was, as Ben suggests, thematic: the Lifeforms EP is far more coherent than the Lifeforms album. On the other hand, the repetitive variations-on-a-theme of the Cascade EP may test many listeners’ patience. And whereas the 2CD Lifeforms album could be accused of losing focus, the 75 minutes of their groundbreaking live-to-internet ISDN album take you on a cyberpunk trip that keeps your interest to the end.
I mention FSOL because they typify to me my joy of creative generosity. Ten years after closing up shop, they began releasing their From The Archives albums, and with the release of Volume 7 in 2012, they’re up to almost 7 hours of previously-unreleased ’90s material that I’m quite happy to lap up. They could have focused their editorial ears on cutting this down to bite-size ‘best ofs’, and you know what? It would have lessened the impact.
Of course, selecting a psychedelic electronica duo for my album standard-bearers might hint at the source of our disagreement. It could it be Ben is right when it comes to pop & rock, but not so much for postrock, electronica or, I dunno, prog? Certainly the less said about RHCP or Ryan Blood Adams the better, and sure, Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… is the kind of work of genius that doesn’t come around that often. But I’ve got every NoMeansNo album and I can tell you, there’s hardly any filler there. In fact, the finely-honed hotshot-producer-stamped co-written pop (or country, or metal) album makes me throw up in my mouth a little, so I think it’s a furphy to blame ease of production for the album’s perceived woes. Let’s thrill instead to the unfiltered sprawl of any of Richard Youngs’ seemingly endless albums, and self-filtering be damned. Let’s enjoy the freewheeling experimentation of Lucky Dragons, whether they pop a few tracks out on a 7″, a Bandcamp EP or a 20-something-track album.
There’s no denying that artists have, through the ages, padded out three or four singles with a couple of decent album tracks and the contractually-obligated musical equivalent of meat extender. Yet, in the musical worlds I orbit, I hardly ever experience this. Maybe I’m just too enthusiastic, but frequently I’m listening to albums for Utility Fog and find myself dropping track after track into the week’s UFog playlist for later consideration. I shudder to think what we might lose if creative spirits rein themselves in to service some Platonic ideal of the perfect release size.
Sometimes an EP just isn’t long enough to fit the expanding creative emanations of an artist. When Sufjan Stevens released his All Delighted People ‘EP’ (eight tracks, nearly an hour long) it seemed unbeatable; and yet at 11 tracks and 75 minutes that year’s The Age of Adz is a true album, a truly coherent single work, and deserves its place in music history.
The Books’ seminal 2nd album The Lemon of Pink clocks in at 37 minutes, but it’s got too many tracks to be an EP. Many people feel it’s a perfect album – and everything on it is perfect. But I’d give anything for 37 minutes more of the same – to me its sole failing is that’s all there is.
So I’ll be delighted whenever an artist finishes four tracks and pushes out an EP on Bandcamp, and it may well express all that needs expressing at the time; but I’m gonna keep giving props to the longform, because more is better.
P.S. Thanks for including me as your last EP example, Bén, but fuck you for making me listen to 30 seconds of Ke$ha before my hand was able to close the YouTube tab.