In today’s culture of increasingly fractured attention spans, a fair number of people either can’t or won’t devote the time to listen to an entire album from start to finish. As somebody that places a very high value on spending quality time with artists and taking longer musical journeys with them, the recent focus on single songs leaves me just a little bit frustrated. But sitting in that neat little pocket between a single song and an album is the EP, A short (but not too short) statement from an artist just hoping to make an impact early or bide some time until they can do something more expansive, the EP has its merits and flourishes when you’re short on time or attention or both. 2018 saw the rise of some very promising new artists, the debut effort from a supergroup, and some established names trying out some new things – all via the medium of the EP. Here are ten of my absolute favorites, which I hope will lead to some new discoveries that expand your musical palate and strike at your emotional core.
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The Extended Play is a tricky beast. For many artists, it serves as an introduction – a means of dipping one’s toes into the water with a small parcel of songs and seeing what the initial reaction is. It stands to reason that if you amass lots of positive attention from fans and critics, that you’re on the right path and can safely wade into the deeper waters of a full length album. For more established artists, EPs can function as a bit of a dumping ground. Sometimes when recording an album, there are some good songs that simply don’t fit the aesthetic you were trying to cultivate, so those odds and sods wind up collected in an EP. It’s also a good stopgap measure, to keep fans engaged during the wait between full length efforts. And finally, it’s important to remember that creativity can be finite. You may head down a particular path with certain songs and themes before reaching to the conclusion after completing five or six songs that there’s nothing more you want to say or explore on the matter.
The ten artists featured on this Top EPs of 2017 list come from a variety of backgrounds and places in their careers. Most are new artists on the verge of breaking out, but there are a couple of established names in the mix too, who thankfully chose to approach their short releases with the same care as their long players. The great news is that there’s plenty to discover. Unless you’re neck deep in the hunt for quality new music, chances are you’ll see a name or two (or three) that you’ve never heard of before. Therefore, I strongly encourage you to hit play on some of the embedded tracks/videos tied to each EP on this list and get a taste of something great you might have otherwise missed. So without further ado, here are my choices for the Ten Best EPs of 2017!
The journey of Thomas Arsenault and his musical pseudonym Mas Ysa is a strange and interesting one. Without going into too much detail (you can find out more via your favorite search engine), he spent his youth in Canada and Brazil, before eventually making his way to the U.S. for college where he befriended some creative types and really began to play around with instruments and sounds. He’s used those connections and skills to become a legitimate recording artist, complete with a record deal and opening slots for bands like Deerhunter and Purity Ring, before 99% of the world had even heard a single note. It’s impressive, really. Is his status as part of the music world today a result of sheer talent, or simply thanks to who he knows? Well, Arsenault’s debut EP Worth provides a pretty definite answer to that question.
“Why” was the first Mas Ysa song uploaded to Soundcloud last fall for consumption by anyone willing to listen, and the nearly 6.5 minute epic drew quite a bit of the right kind of attention. Given its boundary pushing, devil may care mixture of techno, synth pop, folk and other sounds, it was a breath of fresh air and one hell of a first impression. On the EP itself it comes second, following the brief instrumental intro “Vanya.” Which brings up an important point about construction and sequencing. Worth has the nine song track listing of a full length, but clocks in at just under 30 minutes from start to finish. Five of those nine songs are instrumentals that fall between just under a minute to just over two minutes. It’s easy to think of moments like that as filler, however Arsenault does his best to give each one a unique individual identity that quietly draws your towards it, like a moth to a flame. These small sonic experiments also work as perfect segues between the longer vocal tracks, often mentally preparing you for particular tempos and feelings.
Beyond the complex narrative that is “Why,” the other three “main” songs do a fantastic job of painting a full picture of Arsenault’s skill set. “Years” closes out the EP, and is the polar opposite of the frantic energy found at the beginning. It is a sparse and haunting ballad that makes full use of Arsenault’s often quivering and wounded vocals. “Life Way Up From” does something very similar, but twists ever so slightly towards the instrumentally weird, a move made with such confidence and intention that by the time you really notice you’re already too emotionally invested to resist. By contrast, “Shame” has echoes of “Why,” particularly in its forceful vocals and brisk pace, but the overall approach is less about holding on for the ride and more about introspection.
Perhaps the best thing about the Worth EP is how it comes across as fully realized by its creator. That clarity of vision is something that most artists struggle with early on in their careers, so it’s a great sign that Arsenault has a such a steady hold on it from the get-go. Let’s hope he keeps it going for the next release.
Let’s start with an introduction. If you’re not relatively familiar with Chicago’s local music scene, the band Minor Characters may not have ever registered on your radar. Their ultimate plan is world domination, but as with any band or person that ever had the drive to pick up and play an instrument, we’ve all got to start somewhere. In the case of Minor Characters, they first got together at the end of 2010 and have been working hard to pay their dues ever since. They play as many live shows as possible, and through that avenue have built up something of a cult following in Chicago’s local scene. That hard work has paid off in other ways too, which is probably why they recently placed third in The Deli Magazine’s poll of Chicago Emerging Artists for 2012. But the reach of Minor Characters does extend beyond the city of Chicago, as they’ve done a fair amount of touring out of town and will be making their way to SXSW in March to hopefully introduce themselves to crowds eager to hear what they’ve got to offer. Of course everyone is also welcome to discover them via their self-titled EP that was released in late 2011. Five tracks isn’t exactly the largest or best catalogue, but really those songs served as a great foundation upon which to build from. As the old saying goes, better quality than quantity. So that was a great start for the band, but they’re just getting warmed up. Their second EP Heal Me, Healing Times looks to expand upon what they’ve already done and showcase the great strides they’ve made in the last year or so.
It’s always interesting to see how bands describe themselves in press materials. Minor Characters say that they are influenced by 60’s folk, The Beatles and Radiohead. If you’re a music fanatic, that’s sort of like the holy trio of influences, and most artists would kill just to be mentioned in the same breath. But here’s the thing: just because you’re inspired by another band or genre doesn’t mean you have to conform to or sound like it. Sometimes it’s just nice to have that knowledge base going in, because if a band says they’re inspired by Nickelback and Creed, that might raise a red flag before you hear a single note. When it comes to Minor Characters, perhaps it’s best to say that they’re a mobius strip of different sounds that come together to form something that feels entirely familiar yet unique at the same time. For example, their guitars on a track like “Sun Trials” feel tuned to the frequency of Grizzly Bear, but the melody itself doesn’t quite have the same multi-instrumental layers or stark stoicism to make a true match. That’s not a bad thing, as the chorus soars and aches with emotion and the band makes some smart, creative choices when it comes to overall structure and lyrics. If you listen closely in the final minute of the song, a high-pitched, static drone slides into the background that nearly recalls the deflated ending of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” but in a much more subtle fashion. There’s also a few carefully picked notes in the verses of “Aurora Borealis” that bear an eerie resemblance to Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” though maybe that’s more the result of transference after reading the band’s bio. The opening title track can leave the taste of Real Estate in your mouth thanks to its lazy summer day start before getting a strong tempo infusion and becoming a rather addictive indie pop song. Between that and the heartbreaking piano ballad “Expatriates” that closes out the short set, the band’s diverse array of talents are well displayed here.
Enjoyable and compelling as the Heal Me, Healing Times EP might be, there are a couple of small issues with it that need addressing. First and foremost is the length. You get four songs and a total run time of around 17 minutes, which really passes by in a flash. You’re left wanting more, and while that’s always a good thing, it’s also frustrating because it seems like this band is ready to take the plunge and go for the full LP. There are likely reasons why they’re holding off on it, perhaps for financial reasons or to serve as a stopgap as they consider signing to a label. But beyond the EP’s brevity, there are moments on it that feel just a little restrained or held back from something greater. Right now Minor Characters are striking a precious balance between a very normalized, pop-driven world and off-the-charts experimentation. The songs are clean cut and catchy enough to satisfy large audiences, but the rather literary and expository lyrics paired with a few strange effects add just enough dissonance to give you a glimpse into a different dimension. Somewhere down the line, be it months or a year or two from now, they’re probably going to have to fully commit to which direction they want to take. One path brings mainstream success and money but little critical acclaim, while the other path is the more challenging but brings gravitas and integrity to their music. If they’re lucky and can do it right, maybe they can have both. Either way, they’re a band with a wealth of talent worthy of much bigger and better things than where they’re currently at. The Heal Me, Healing Times EP is proof of that, building upon their earlier material and setting them apart from the hundreds of other Chicago bands trying to reach that next great peak. To put it another way, Minor Characters are finally ready to step out of the background and into the spotlight.
Stream the entire Heal Me, Healing Times EP
It seems like a much longer period of time, but it’s only been about 2.5 years since we last heard from How to destroy angels_. What has the band been doing in that gap? Well, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have been creating the soundtracks to The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for starters. Progress with Htda has been slow to say the least, but at least there’s a good excuse as to why. Their 2010 self-titled debut EP wasn’t exactly a bold statement of originality, but there were some solid starting points that they could have worked from to build something fantastic and wholly worthwhile. What’s surprising about the new An omen_ EP is that they seem to have forgotten about that earlier material completely. You’re not going to turn this on and confuse it for another band, but subtle changes have been made to their approach that change your expectations for the project. Most specifically, they seem to be moving away from energetic songs with danceable rhythms that are ripe for remixing, and instead working with calm but very dark atmospherics that feel much more emotionally draining. For better comparison, the first EP was like Nine Inch Nails hit singles “The Hand That Feeds” or “Only,” while this new EP more crosses NIN’s Ghosts record and Reznor’s work with fellow Htda bandmate Atticus Ross on the soundtrack for The Social Network. So you’ll not get anything as fun as “Fur Lined” or The Knife-like as “BBB” appeared to be. The closest thing to a single An omen_ has is opening track “Keep it together,” which rolls past on a minimalist arrangement that’s one part skittering beat and another part bass vibration. The song title is the chorus hook, which gets chanted over and over by Mariqueen Maandig and Reznor until it sticks with you. Just because it’s the most memorable song on the EP doesn’t mean it’s the best though, because that honor goes to what immediately follows it – the seven minute “Ice Age.” The song takes this band to an entirely new place, but filters it so well most people won’t even notice. Peel the track down to solely the banjo and Maandig’s vocal, and you’ve got a very slight country song. With percussion, loops, static and electric guitar it becomes an ambient and precariously balanced musical thinkpiece that subtly challenges our preconceptions about this band and our expectations from Reznor.
By contrast, the rest of An omen_ falls into very familiar territory. “The sleep of reason produces monsters” and “The loop closes” are both primarily instrumental tracks, though Reznor does chant, “The beginning is the end and it keeps coming around again,” a bunch of times in the final 90 seconds of the latter song. Those words may remind NIN fans of the song “The Beginning of the End” from the Year Zero record. There is no direct correlation to it, but it serves as a good reminder of Reznor’s fixation on endings and beginnings. As he pushes his old band and previous work into the background and tries to start fresh, it’s nearly impossible to avoid looking back and making comparisons. This unending loop is both a help and a hindrance to How to destroy angels_, because unless they try something completely wild and unexpected, there’s a built in fan base both latching on and harshly judging at the same time. If you’ve been having trouble liking Reznor’s post-NIN work, this new EP isn’t going to win you over. Though they don’t sound too similar to one another, the two EPs Htda have put out so far share one common flaw: Maandig’s vocals. She doesn’t have a bad voice and can certainly hit all the notes as needed, but she falls short when it comes to injecting emotion into the songs. Most often she comes off like an actor that gets cast in the wrong role. These are dark, grimy and brooding arrangements, and her lilting voice has an innocence that doesn’t quite get to that same level. Reznor’s already proven himself in that regard, which is why his less frequent vocal work more often than not shows how great this band could be when firing on all cylinders. Since Reznor is married to her, Maandig isn’t likely to leave or get kicked out of the band, so it’s best just to accept her shortcomings and hope that with time she improves. The band’s debut full length set for 2013 would be a great place to start.
Click past the jump to stream the entire EP!
Daniel Rossen is best known for his exceptional work in Grizzly Bear and less known for his side project Department of Eagles. The man is in many ways a wellspring of creativity and gorgeous melodies, boosted all the more by his unique guitar playing. You don’t even need to hear his voice to know he’s had a hand in a song. He’s also exceptional when it comes to arranging songs – breathing plenty of life into a track without overstuffing or cluttering it up. The last couple years Rossen has been working hard and touring with Grizzly Bear in support of their 2009 album Veckatimest. That record brought a somewhat unexpected dose of legitimate popularity to the rather subtle indie band, and all those guys did a great job handling the additional responsibilities that came along with an increased profile. Last year Rossen wrote a bunch of songs to prepare for the next Grizzly Bear LP, but a handful of them didn’t quite fit for one reason or another. It was mostly an issue of collaboration, in that he’d done about 90% of the work on these songs and felt like a more evenly balanced approach would benefit the band as a whole. Instead of ditching the tracks entirely or saving them for a rainy day re-working, Rossen chose to throw some polish on them and push them out into the world on his own. The Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP is the result, and it highlights exactly what makes the man an asset to whatever project he’s working on at the time.
Like The Beatles, Grizzly Bear is made up of four distinct personalities, and their working in tandem with one another creates beautiful records with intense vocal harmonies. It makes plenty of sense then that Rossen’s solo EP sounds an awful lot like something Grizzly Bear would put out, mixed with a touch of his other, similarly styled band Department of Eagles. Every song except for “Saint Nothing” features a lush acoustic guitar base, often supplemented with a smart variety of other instruments from electric and pedal steel guitar to piano, bass drum and even a string section. In its full glory you get the impression it’d make for the perfect soundtrack to time spent alone reflecting on the immense power of nature.
From start to finish, the EP plays like the storyline of a man retreating to the woods in search of serenity and meaning in his life. Opening track “Up On High” makes the lyrical observation of, “In this big empty room/finally feel free.” Though it’s not explicitly stated, that “big empty room” could very well be a forest devoid of people. “Silent Song” continues that trend with mentions of hills and fields and digging. Rossen’s lyrics aren’t exactly what you’d call poetry, but everything else about the songs is so impressive it’s tough to pass too much judgment on the guy for a few clunky or bland lines. When all else fails, you can look to the immense spectacle that is “Return to Form” for guidance. What starts as a babbling brook of acoustic guitar work builds to an orchestral crescendo complete with some electric guitar riffs stolen almost directly from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Ok, consider it more of an homage than anything else.
By the time “Golden Mile” turns up after the meditative piano dirge of “Saint Nothing”, the mood has become sprightly and upbeat. “There is bliss in this mess/there is madness all around,” Rossen sings, and you can almost hear a wink and a smile tacked onto it. Our world-weary main character has returned from his retreat into nature having learned a valuable lesson; when life becomes a burden and your emotional reservoir fills with despair, take a few moments for yourself and appreciate the little things. That same lesson can be applied to the Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP itself. At 5 tracks and 23 minutes, this is a small, elegant delight to enjoy when you need a few moments of peace. It’s also a nice stopgap for those unable to wait for this fall’s new Grizzly Bear album. Daniel Rossen may just be one leg of the Grizzly Bear table, but this EP goes a long way towards proving that should he truly want to, he can stand on his own.
Daniel Rossen – Silent Song
Most discussions of The Decemberists contain similar themes, and that’s probably in large part because the band has cultivated such themes for themselves and one can’t help but be drawn into that whole storyline. The most basic way to put it is that their songs are often tales of olden times, when chimney sweeps and barrow boys were in existence, and people were scared of succumbing to consumption. Though early American in time period, the verbiage put forth by singer Colin Meloy pretty much required an Ivy League education or at least a dictionary to fully understand. And as engaging as their early records were, jaunty little melodies that told such stories in such florid ways, as time went on they became increasingly complex and alienating, the coup de grace being 2009’s rock opera “The Hazards of Love”. There was good news on the horizon though, and it finally arrived earlier this year with the band’s sixth full length “The King Is Dead”. Gone were the heady concepts and a fair amount of the ten dollar words. In their place was a much more humble and dare I say plainspoken alt-country sound, with guest appearances by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Americana legend Gillian Welch. Such a rootsy record was a change of pace for the band, and it pretty much saved them from the sharp downward slope their careers had taken. It may not have been on par with their best stuff, but it seemed to be a gentle nod to fans that they had heard their cries of disappointment and wanted to do right by them. As The Decemberists ready themselves for an extended break to pursue other things both musical and non-musical, they’re leaving us with one last taste of country via the “Long Live the King” EP. Culled from the same sessions that yielded “The King Is Dead”, this six song collection is pretty much all outtakes, and that alone should tell you a little something about their quality.
That’s not to say all records that promote b-sides, outtakes and rarities are bad, after all sometimes artists need to leave certain tracks off because they merely don’t fit sonically or thematically with the rest of an album. Then there are the bands whose leftovers are still better than most other bands’ best material. In the case of the “Long Live the King” EP, if your expectations are low going in, then they’ll easily be met. To be cut from a pretty good but not quite great record should already inform you of how well these songs are going to go, piecemeal bits that don’t fully make sense together but nevertheless remain interesting curios for the band’s devoted fan base. The set begins with “E. Watson”, a song about a murder that pairs Meloy’s vocals with only an acoustic guitar. Considering the absence of the rest of the band, it’s easy to think of Meloy’s covers EPs, in which he performed songs by Morrissey, Shirley Collins and Sam Cooke entirely on his own. It’s a somber way to start things, and a good indicator as to why the song might not have fit in with the cheerier demeanor on “The King Is Dead”. Much more in line with that last record is “Foregone”, a track that has the alt-country twang and strong lyrics to make it a solid deep cut rather than an outtake. For whatever reason though, it was cut, and we’re all the better for getting the chance to hear it now. Contrasting with that is “Burying Davy”, a dark, prog-rock trip that certainly feels like the band was still in “The Hazards of Love” mode when it was recorded. If there’s one track that feels most out of place and unworthy of inclusion on any Decemberists release, it’s that one.
The second half of the “Long Live the King” EP takes a turn for the interesting, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The track “I4U & U4ME” is labeled as the “home demo” version, though honestly if you’ve been listening to a lot of bedroom-recorded demos from unknown artists, this sounds pristine by comparison. The quality isn’t even that different from the professional studio recordings on the rest of the EP. And while the full band is present on the track, there is the sense that it could use just a touch of fleshing out into a more full bodied and impressive cut should they so desire. It’s a whole lot of bouncy fun too, which is not something you can say about a lot of Decemberists songs. Also fun but in an entirely different way is the band’s take on the Grateful Dead’s “Row Jimmy”, a nearly 7 minute excursion that originally appeared as a b-side on the “January Hymn” single late last year. The loose interpretation of the original benefits it greatly and results in one of the more memorable versions of such an oft-covered cut. Last but certainly not least comes “Sonnet”, a rather lighthearted acoustic number whose lyrics are culled from the annals of Dante himself. Yes, the “Dante’s Inferno” guy or the “Divine Comedy” guy, however you want to remember him. It’s a fine way to end the EP, but clearly wouldn’t be an optimal choice for inclusion on any real Decemberists record, unless they crafted one entirely based on the works of classical literature.
It will likely be awhile before we hear from The Decemberists again. That is to say, give them a few years to do their own things before they return to this band. They could use the break and we could use the break. The “Long Live the King” EP comes across as more of a stopgap effort, something to tide fans over or at least wave a temporary goodbye with a few crumbs and morsels left sitting out with no home elsewhere. Outside of maybe “Burying Davy”, there’s nothing here that’s outright bad, though there’s also nothing that outright sparkles either. Just a few more solid songs from a band that could use more of them in their catalogue. Let’s just hope they remember that down the road when it comes time to return to the stage they were meant for.
If you have yet to learn about Dom, now’s as good of a time as any to start an investigation. Technically speaking, Dom is a band made of up of 3 guys, the frontman just so happening to have the same name as the band. You want Dom’s (the person) last name? You’re not going to get one because he chooses not to reveal it. At least his past is apparently a colorful one, involving foster homes and recreational drug use. The recreational drug use is more of a “now” thing than a foster home thing, and consider it more for creative inspiration than a legitimate addiction. He likes his weed, among other things. The guy is also remarkably charming and hilarious, so if you’ve got the opportunity to check out an interview with him, you won’t be bored by it. All of this has little bearing on the actual music the trio turns out, first earning a healthy dose of hype via the “Sun Bronzed Greek Gods” EP released last year. Those extremely lo-fi pop melodies were such earworms that Astralwerks caught wind of the band and signed them. Now, either because they’re lazy stoners that like playing it slow and steady or because they’re crazed perfectionists that refuse to release anything until it meets their overly high standards, Dom has their second EP out this week called “Family of Love”.
The difference between Dom’s first EP and the “Family of Love” EP is remarkable. The huge change is due to the fact that the band actually recorded this one in a studio rather than at home. The professional, glossy sound suits them well and avoids the distractions that shoddy quality often brings with it. The “Sun Bronzed Greek Gods” EP was so torn up that despite its youthful energy it remains a difficult listen, and hearing the new stuff makes the older material that much more pallid by comparison. That’s not to say the songwriting has improved, or even that the melodies are any more addictive, rather the clarity enhances the assets that have been present all along. Had their first EP been professionally recorded, one can only imagine how much better it might have been as a result.
As to the sound, a good way to describe it would be slacker pop. Light and airy, with a healthy dose of synths, there’s nothing really all that different on the “Family of Love” EP that we haven’t heard from Dom before. Of course you do get cool things like a telephone keypad solo on (naturally) “Telephone”, another small testament to the pure wit these guys approach their music with. Outside of the little quirks though, there’s not much on this EP that’s blatantly funny. The title track carries with it strong lyrics about what it means to have friends to rely on in times of hardship and struggle. Coming from the background that Dom does, he probably knows the value of friendship more than anyone. Other tracks deal with matters of the heart, like the closing “Some Boys”, which eschews the classic sentiment that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. And you’ve got one guess to try and figure out what “Happy Birthday Party” is all about.
At 5 tracks and just over 16 minutes, this EP is shorter than the “Sun Bronzed Greek Gods” EP by two tracks and three minutes. Yet despite the small reduction the “Family of Love” EP feels more cohesive and tighter than the last one, careful not to waste any time. It’s just a touch catchier too, making every listen as easy as a strong summer wind. So it would seem that Dom remains a band to watch, in spite of their rather meager output at the moment. If we get really lucky, maybe next time they’ll have enough of a work ethic to provide us with a legitimate full length album.
Now feels like as good of a time as any to check in with UNKLE. James Lavelle has stuck with the project longer than anyone thought he would, in particular after all the personnel changes that have occurred over the years. From its humble beginnings with DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy to the supreme reign of Richard File, those guys each contributed their own unique angles on UNKLE’s typically dark electronic landscapes. With File jumping ship after 2007’s “War Stories”, early reports speculated that Lavelle was going to turn in his dance card, but Pablo Clements would step into File’s shoes a short time later and keep everything going strong. Stronger than ever before it turns out, because in the past 5 years there’s been twice as much material from Lavelle than there was in the previous 10 years. 2008’s “End Titles…Stories for Film” was a slightly different UNKLE record, reliant on atmosphere and soundtrack-like pieces (as the title suggests) rather than the typical guest stars. Last year’s “Where Did the Night Fall” was a return to more standard fare, bringing in another array of vocalists that ranged from The Black Angels to Katrina Ford and Mark Lanegan. Now nearly a full year later, UNKLE is putting out a deluxe edition of that album, packaged with some extra material like instrumentals and new songs. For those that already own the record and don’t want to buy it again in a more expensive form, the “Only the Lonely” EP is one solution to get most of those extras separately. And though they are intended as companion pieces, one need not own or have heard the last album to appreciate the EP. In fact, it might just be better that way.
It’s natural to think that maybe the whole point of the “Only the Lonely” EP is to squeeze a little more blood from the same sessions that yielded “Where Did the Night Fall”. That’s something UNKLE could very well have done, and if you get the new deluxe edition of the record there’s plenty of outtakes and b-sides to whet your whistle should you be a completist. This EP though is far better than a simple set of tracks that couldn’t find a place elsewhere. You don’t get Nick Cave to provide a guest vocal and NOT use him, so it’s more than reasonable to assume that most if not all of the five tracks on this EP have been recorded in the last year. Cave’s track “Money and Run” commences the brooding immediately, as as tradition for any UNKLE release. One gets the impression that Lavelle has not seen actual sunshine in a long time. Then again, the same could be said for Cave, and the two would seem to make for an inspired pairing. It works out pretty much as planned, as Cave gives the tale of criminal activity and evildoers all the gusto it requires, matched by an instrumental soundscape of scuffed up guitars and tired drums. Great though it may be, it doesn’t quite stand up to a lot of Cave’s other work with Grinderman and the Bad Seeds and such. Yet it champions over virtually every other track on the EP and holds a place somewhere around UNKLE’s 10 best tracks to date. Liela Moss of The Duke Spirit throws her vocal chords behind “The Dog Is Black” next, and the gothic atmosphere blends supremely well with her sultry voice. Two tracks in and very little to complain about, save for some weak lyrics that only become a problem if you focus on them with the utmost intention of dissection.
One of UNKLE’s biggest faults has always been trying to pack too much into a singular record, and as a result completely sandbagging the entire thing by being too weighty for too long. A shorter EP then seems like a great way to study if Lavelle and company can fare any better by moving briskly. The centerpiece of the “Only the Lonely” EP is the instrumental title track, and after two strong opening cuts this is where weakness begins to show its face. Not much happens in the track, which is exactly what you want to avoid on a track without vocals and lyrics. Thankfully the last two cuts redeem that soggy midsection with solid performances from Gavin Clark (“Wash the Love Away”) and Sleepy Sun’s Rachel Fannan (“Sunday Song”). Unlike the Cave and Moss songs though, these backloaded tracks deserve to be placed exactly where they are, trailing everything else courtesy of their sheer normalcy. If you’ve listened to enough UNKLE then you’re more or less aware of their standard operating procedure, of which these last two songs hold to hard and fast. The positive is that normal for UNKLE is almost always better than you expect, so those songs balance things out relatively well. The issue is that on an EP where you only have 5 songs, the hope is that every one of them is exceptional. For the “Only the Lonely” EP, that’s just a slight bit more than half true. Still, in this bite-sized chunk of music, a lot of past pitfalls have been avoided, leaving you with the tease that just maybe Lavelle and his wealth of co-conspirators can actually escape from their nearly forgotten hole if they buckle down and focus their energies just a little bit more. Or maybe Lavelle can just convince Thom Yorke to come back for another guest vocal.
By all accounts, James Mercer and Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) work well together. Functioning as Broken Bells, their self-titled debut record that came out last year was a pretty solid piece of 60s-tinged pop with a modern twist. The assumption at the time was that Broken Bells would be only a temporary project, lasting only an album or two. After all, Danger Mouse wasn’t one to settle down so easy, given his habit of bouncing from project to project in addition to functioning as producer for a number of different artists. While there’s no indication that Danger Mouse’s team-up with Cee-Lo Green as Gnarls Barkley is officially dead, it hasn’t shown any signs of life the last couple years. Factor in Cee-Lo climbing the ladder of success a second time but on his own courtesy of “Fuck You”, and he probably doesn’t feel the need to keep that thing going. On the other side of this puzzle you have James Mercer, frontman for The Shins but in a tight spot of his own after firing his bandmates though replacing them with new guys. Despite talk of a new Shins record on the way back in 2009, nothing has materialized yet and last year Mercer said he wasn’t sure when he’d return to that band except that it wouldn’t be before mid-2011. We’ll see if that happens eventually, but for now we might as well deal with the reality of Broken Bells and their new/old EP “Meyrin Fields”.
The four songs and just under 12 minutes of music on “Meyrin Fields” are made up of a b-side and a couple outtakes from the same sessions that contributed to last year’s debut. The title track first appeared as paired with “The Ghost Inside” single, and it’s remarkably kinetic, particularly for Broken Bells. Eletronic squelches squirm about as the main source of melody as a menacing bass line runs underneath and matches wits with the equally dark lyrics. It makes sense as to why the song didn’t fit on the original record, but has enough deevelopment and smart structure to make for another single or even build an entire EP around. The dark energy holds steadfast on “Windows”, and thanks to a number of blips and bleeps there’s a certain urgency that only makes the song more compelling. The increased reliance on electric guitar also is just a little different from the Broken Bells norm, which tends to be organ or keyboard-based more often than not, with only little splashes of ferocity. Those keyboard and organ elements are what “An Easy Life” mostly uses, in tandem naturally with other electronic elements and beats. There’s a reggae-like bounce that the track cruises along to, and while it is just fine, there’s nothing much to make the song stand out or leave any sort of lasting impression on you. They can’t all be winners. Closing track “Heartless Empire” is a big winner on this EP though, creating a unique pastiche of grinding shoegaze guitars and drifting synth pop. It’s actually the best mixture of the two distinct styles that Mercer and Burton bring to this band, even moreso than much of what was on that first full length.
Where the “Meyrin Fields” EP missteps is really in its conception. That’s not to call it a completely useless exercise, but rather as a cohesive set of songs it doesn’t work in the least. Taken individually, close to everything has its merits and comes across as worthwhile. There’s just too much disparity in the sonic makeup of these tracks to call it a whole piece. Similarly though, there’s no place for these songs on that self-titled full length either, so in trying to create some sort of stopgap or just to get all the material out there for consumption, the purpose is served. Still, you can’t help but think that besides “Meyrin Fields” the song, if they’d just dished one more out as a b-side (say…”An Easy Life”) to a single, then a track like “Heartless Empire” could have earned its own separate 7″ single with “Windows” as its b-side. That would have been a more economical and perhaps financially beneficial move to make. Equally rewarding might have been saving these songs for a rainy day and seeing if any of them could fit into the context of a new Broken Bells full length. Assuming there will be a second Broken Bells album, of course. Oh well, what’s done is done, and the “Meyrin Fields” EP does a solid job of showing there’s more range to this band than what most of us first thought. It’s enough to give you hope – that maybe this is a project that deserves to exist well beyond what almost seemed destined to be a one-off collaboration.
It took three and a half years for Klaxons to create the sophmore album that was 2010’s “Surfing the Void”, the space cat artworked follow-up to 2007’s “Myths of the Near Future”. While bands taking that long to come up with a new record isn’t that uncommon, what many didn’t hear about was the band’s failed attempt at recording their second record in the fall of 2008. They lined up Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford to produce the album and went to France to work with him. Upon completion of that album at the end of ’08, the band’s label listened to it and rejected it for being “too experimental”. An easier way to read into that was to say Klaxons, who had been saying prior to these recording sessions they were looking to move in a far more prog-rock and psychedelic direction on their new album, actually followed through and the result was a collection of songs that were hard to market. It sounded like a different band than the one that by themselves created the term “nu-rave” (a term they had grown to hate), and perhaps the biggest worry was that such a change in style would completely eradicate the solid fan base already built thanks to danceable cuts like “Golden Skans” and “From Atlantis To Interzone”. After the label’s rejection of their prog-rock opus, Klaxons then retreated back to the studio in late 2009 with new producer Ross Robinson to make “Surfing the Void”, a kinetic and loud record that was unique in how it skirted the line between dance record and psychedelic freak out. In other words, it was a compromise between band and label, one that worked out to relatively positively positive reviews but slightly diminished sales. Perhaps to try and pull in some extra good will, or just because they knew nothing would become of them anyways, this past Christmas, Klaxons bestowed upon us a free EP titled “Landmarks of Lunacy”. Posted on their website, it’s a set of 5 aborted songs from their sessions with James Ford that never saw the light of day.
You would think that with a member of Simian Mobile Disco behind the boards, making a fast-paced dance album would be pretty easy to do. That’s not what Klaxons had in mind on the songs that make up the “Landmarks of Lunacy” EP though, and they were true to their word in venturing out into much more psychedelic territory. There’s a certain calm and trippy atmosphere permeating these tracks, even if it doesn’t quite reach its full potential until the 7+ minute “Marble Fields” that closes the EP out. On the opening track “The Pale Blue Dot”, the booming drums seem to have dominance as most everything else is pretty sparse until the chorus hits home. That’s when the watery guitars make a bit of racket and veer off the reservation for some brief moments before getting back on track. The doubled over, often harmonized vocals work well in this case, matching well with your traditional oddball Klaxons lyrics referencing everything from a “terra rusty tone” to the “infinite being clouds”. That being said, the track is also just a little bit boring, primarily because it doesn’t have enough going on to justify the direction it takes. The same could be said for “Silver Forest”, though it does have a bit more going for it on a few different sides. The more liberal use of piano is nice, as are the echo effects applied to some of the vocals. The only thing missing from the song is tempo – were the pace to move about 1.5x faster than it currently is, a hit single would emerge. “Ivy Leaves” gets really out there, choosing to float in the ether of spacey electronic background noise as the vocals sit front and center. There’s not much in the way of a chorus while drum machine beats build and grow louder and more insistent to the point where they almost explode. Just when you expect the whole track to break wide open and skyrocket into this massive heavy guitar hook, the bottom drops out and you’re back to the quiet provided by that anti-gravity electro minimalism. It can come off like wasted potential, but there’s something to be admired in the restraint the band shows in such a situation. Guitars are entirely absent from “Wildeflowers”, a slow march that gets by on keyboards, a quivering organ-like instrument, and percussion that feels like it comes from banging around random kitchen objects at the same time. Thematically it’s in perfect alignment with the trippy vibe the EP is supposed to exude, but unlike the previous three tracks there’s little redemption to be found here. The melody stays almost exactly the same from start to finish while the chorus just doesn’t quite have the strength to stick with you long enough to be memorable. The singular track you’re sure to not forget on this five track ode to experimentation though is closing number “Marble Fields”. Pink Floyd is not a name to be referenced lightly, and to be clear Klaxons are no Pink Floyd, but were that seminal band to get back together and make a new record, “Marble Fields” might be what it’d sound like today. It is the one song that holds echoes of modern psychedelia through and through, with the band utilizing most everything in their arsenal to create this epic and rather exciting track. The opening piano line comes off as dark and paranoid, and then the fuzz-riddled guitar enters the picture and pushes that idea further into the “bad trip” scenario. There’s an uptick in the mood around the pretty catchy chorus, and the vocal harmonies and roundabout backing vocals are nothing short of impressive. Somewhere around 4 minutes in, the track begins its slow descent into overwhelming noise. Starting with a rather strong drum freak out, waves of guitars and electronic drone build up and wash over the vocals until they’re completely buried. The final minute sounds a whole lot like a person trying to sing underwater, just a whole bunch of nonsensical electronic gurgles. It’s a good thing the band chose to end with that, because you don’t really come back from it, with good reason.
Undoubtedly, Klaxons unleashed the “Landmarks of Lunacy” EP to see what kind of reaction these heretofore rejected songs would generate. The unfortunate truth seems to be that it was a wise move to not include them on the band’s second record. That’s not to say there isn’t value in most of these songs or that the band needed to make something more marketable like they eventually wound up doing, but it’s more about the fine line between good and bad. There are so many great psych-pop records out there that don’t work on a verse-chorus-verse system or have a listener-friendly angle to them, Klaxons just haven’t created one of those. A couple of these tracks are great on paper and show all sorts of potential, but there’s always a thing or two they’re lacking to make them truly excellent. The lone exception is “Marble Fields”, which puts everything else to shame while proving the band has it in them to craft something both wildly experimental and engaging. If they could make an entire record with songs as great as the last one on this EP, that’d be worth putting out, record label be damned. As it stands, the band is handing you this entire EP as a free download, so paying absolutely nothing for it feels like the price is right. You may very well like or even grow to love some of these songs, meaning they’re worth at least listening to once out of curiosity. For those with the time and a bit of hard drive space to spare though, take the full download as there’s no harm in it. What can we expect from the next Klaxons record? It’s still way too early to speculate, but if songs like the sharply experimental ones on the “Landmarks of Lunacy” EP were originally intended for release back in 2008, we truly can’t tell what sort of headspace they’ll be in come 2011 or 2012.
“Are you with us, or against us tonight?”
That sentence makes up the chorus of the new Smashing Pumpkins song “The Fellowship”, which leads off the second of eleven 4-song EPs underneath the “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope” series. Billy Corgan and his band of faceless strangers officially started the whole 44-song project this past May, when they unleashed the first volume subtitled “Songs For A Sailor”. To be perfectly clear though, the band has been steadily releasing songs, one at a time, in the months preceeding each EP, but it’s only when a four song cycle is completed that everything gets packaged together and sold in a limited edition set with all sorts of little trinkets and goodies. Really that’s stuff for the hardcore fans, and those of us simply wanting to hear and/or own the music can go digital and download the songs for free via the band’s website. In other words, at absolutely no cost to you, turning down new music from The Smashing Pumpkins could be considered foolish, unless of course you really hate the band. Lord knows they’ve done plenty to attract the wrong kind of attention these last few years since Corgan recruited a bunch of randoms to replace the great musicians that helped create classic records like “Gish” and “Siamese Dream”. The official “return” of the band came in the form of the record “Zeitgeist”, which was something of a left turn into a more prog-rock territory with long form compositions rather than easy-on-the-ears singles. Corgan claimed he could write those in his sleep and was consciously choosing not to. Then came the angry rants at live shows after fans would get angry over the lack of old material being played. Controversy follows The Smashing Pumpkins around like a lost puppy. But to say the least, this “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope” project has been interesting thus far, and the first batch of songs wasn’t half bad, even if they could often feel scattershot or random in their placement together. The new volume is subtitled “The Solstice Bare”, and it physically went on sale earlier this week in very limited quantities.
At nearly 4 minutes long, “The Fellowship” follows a pretty standard verse-chorus-verse structure. Synths and keyboards take an early lead on the track, but electric guitars swoop in and take over the mic soon enough to surge ahead and bring the track the anthemic quality it needs to succeed. This is the sort of song the band can get away with playing to start their shows – one that’s catchy single-bait and with enough energy to get fists pumping and crowds “on their side”. It’s a surprisingly decent song from the band, that is, in comparison to the rest of the “new school” Smashing Pumpkins and not the “classic” one. The official first single and one that’s actually earned the band radio airplay recently is “Freak”, a crunchy, fuzz-riddled guitar song in desperate need of a James Iha solo. Despite this, it’s another surprisingly good track that works on multiple levels while simultaneously making a strong case for why the very young drummer Mike Byrne could just be a suitable replacement for Jimmy Chamberlain. Acoustic guitars, drum machines and synths start “Tom Tom”, but are quickly tossed aside for live drum work and electric guitars. Mid-way through the song though, there’s a small gap of silence before the whole process starts over again. Once again you get what amounts to a pretty normal-sounding Pumpkins song, but in this case not a whole lot happens in general. Once you get the build up to the first chorus, only the bridge veers off course and even then not very much. No guitar solos, nothing really noteworthy about the song at all, which ultimately makes it a bit bland. Bland doesn’t necessarily equal weak though, inoffensive and standard are two similar words to use that make about the same amount of sense. If “Tom Tom” were playing in the car or in another situation where I’d have the option of turning it off, 9 times out of 10 it’d stay on with little complaint. The keyboard gets set to “harpsichord” at the start of closing track “Spangled”, but once the electric guitars come in the setting changes to “organ”. There’s something that resembles a string section in the background during portions of the song too, there’s just so much else going on higher in the mix that it’s tough to tell. In the case of this 2.5 minute song, it remans instrumentally interesting from start to finish, but lacks the easier catchiness of the other songs. That “problem” become easier to accept given how brief the track is, and that it closes out the EP. There are very few artists that save their best for last.
As this “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope” series progresses, it appears more and more like Billy Corgan is learning a whole lot from past mistakes. When he “reunited” the Pumpkins a few years ago, Corgan very much retained his dictator-type personality that drove his bandmates off in the first place. Jimmy Chamberlain, perhaps his greatest and best friend, stood by him through it all. At some point after the touring cycle for “Zeitgeist” though, he finally had enough and abandoned ship. Not saying there was a straw that broke the camel’s back, but after remaining so defiant and in defense of every piece of music he’s ever released, Corgan now seems to be okay with looking backwards to a time when the masses loved him despite his perceived faults. It was a generation of kids that grew up listening to the band and fully identifying with the sheer angst and outright honesty that Corgan was throwing in their direction. Those fans have grown up now, yet Corgan seemed to be steadfast in his finger pointing and generalized anger. Starting with the first entry in this 44-song project, “Songs For A Sailor” was a small shift in direction for the Pumpkins, retaining just a little bit of that prog-rock from the maligned “Zeitgeist” while showing faint hints of a classic-but-new progression towards a normal rock song. Anger is much less on the menu these days, and in its place are songs about having an imaginary son and Corgan’s own take on spirituality. There’s also hooks, which had been taking a back seat for awhile in an effort to do something different. The Billy Corgan we hear on “The Solstice Bare” is a more adult, mature and aware Billy Corgan than we’ve heard in a long time. He’s starting to come around and is meeting fans old and new somewhere in the middle. It’s the smart move to make, and one can hope it may eventually result in a true rebirth of The Smashing Pumpkins that may someday rival the classic stuff. Both the last EP and this new one are beginning to carve out a new legacy, slowly but surely. We’ve got 9 EPs and a few years left in this “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope” project, but if each successive set of 4 songs continues to improve on the one before it, this could be a real great and meaningful thing once it’s finally wrapped up.
Last year was very much about Girls. The duo of Christopher Owens and JR White made a whole lot of waves in 2009 thanks to their well-received debut record, ironically titled “Album”. Flanked by the two strong singles of “Lust for Life” and “Hellhole Ratrace”, Girls have become known for sunny pop with a strong 60s influence – great for a day at the beach or catching some waves. So after a year’s worth of touring around the world, including a high profile set at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, the band wants to send a love letter back to the fans that have supported them here there and everywhere. They’ve earned enough money for a proper trip to a recording studio and are eager to show everyone just how they’ve progressed. The result is the “Broken Dreams Club” EP, a six-song, 30 minute collection of songs that really is a celebration of diversity, change and the inevitable compromises we all make when things don’t work out the way we planned.
The “Broken Dreams Club” EP opens with “Thee Oh So Protective One”, a track that feels carved out of time itself, with Owens channeling his best Buddy Holly voice and the vibe being decidedly 50s in nature. It’d be the perfect sort of song to play at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance from “Back to the Future”. As the first piece of evidence that Girls are starting to turn into “young women” (pun 100% intended), the song is also spiked with a horn section that’s both surprising and a delight. As a new single and something that’s been played at Girls’ live shows since “Album” first was released, “Heartbreaker” is a delight. The guitars are remarkably crisp, and the light touches of keyboard with the harmonized chorus just adds a little extra magic to an already catchy and seemingly light song. Of course the stark reality is that the song is anything but bright and sunny, the title alone gives that away. Owens’ sad sack vocals are also another clue, as his ability to convey emotion with a simple chorus and the word “why?” is remarkably great. The five minute title track is a ballad measured out in slide guitar and wistful trumpet, and a splash of organ really brings out Girls’ alt-country side. It winds up falling somewhere between Wilco and Band of Horses…if they used trumpets. The horns show up again on “Alright”, though the jangly guitars really make the melody what it is. What turns the song really interesting is how free form and non-linear it is, largely negating a catchy chorus and verses to simply groove for a bit and keep your toe tapping. The entire second half of the song is just full-on instrumental, save for some echo-laden “oohs” and “aahs”, and for just a moment it feels exactly like something Broken Social Scene would do. Surf rock grooves come on board for “Substance”, which is either an ode to drugs, giving up on life, or both. “Who wants something real/when you could have nothing?/Why not just give up?/Who wants to try?” Owens sings, later proclaiming “I take the key in my hand and it takes the pain away”. The song’s not something you exactly want to be playing when trying to boost your mood, but then again neither are most Girls songs. The nearly 8 minute atmospheric jam session that is the EP closer “Carolina” takes the psychedelic path of least resistance. Effectively trippy is a good way to describe the song, and the main lyrical and catchy chorus portions of it are sitting right in between two instrumental ends. The issue with that midsection is that the way Owens sings it brings up strong memories of the “Album” track “Ghost Mouth”. Listen to both tracks back to back and try to determine how many vocal notes in the choruses are different. I’m willing to be it’s very few. Still, “Carolina” is a very good track and a rather cool way to finish the EP.
There’s great news for Girls fans on this “Broken Dreams Club” EP. The band takes a few steps towards improving their fidelity and diversity of sound, but come off no worse for the wear. In other words, it seems like they are taking the next logical steps forward, and it will likely work to their advantage once again for their sophmore album. There’s not really a clunker among this bunch, even if there’s some interesting stylistic variations. The very innocent 50s-inspired way that “Thee Oh So Protective One” introduces the EP may be effective, but the sharpest moments still remain in some of the catchier, faster-paced songs. “Heartbreaker” is arguably their third best song to date, even if it feels drawn from the same cloth that their debut was. It’s a track like “Alright” that really stands out though, relying much more on atmosphere and a groove than a verse-chorus-verse structure. Chances are that won’t be where Girls go next, but if they do it could yield something truly brilliant and innovative for them. As it stands though, you need to get this EP if you even like Girls a little bit. It’s the perfect little stopgap between where they were as a band before and where they might be headed next. Even more exciting times are ahead for this band, I can feel it.
Imagine this is a quiz show right now and you’ve been asked to name a band when given the following description: They’re from France, they formed in the 90s, they sing in English, and make synth-based pop-rock songs. At this point in time, plenty of us with a solid knowledge of music would probably say Phoenix was the band being described, mostly because they both fit the description and are the most popular choice given their worldwide success in the last year and a half. There is another band that falls perfectly under that very small umbrella too, and they’ve actually been around longer. Tahiti 80 is their name, and if you’ve not yet heard of them let this be a grand introduction to their world. Since the mid-90s, they’ve released four full-length albums and a whole bunch of EPs, most of them providing a smart mix of 60s pop, 80s pop, and a small bit of soul for flavor. It’s been largely fun, sunshine-inspired stuff that’s almost just as great as Phoenix’s candy-coated sugar rushes they call songs. As they’re working hard on finishing up their fifth studio album titled “The Past, The Present & The Possible” for a February release, Tahiti 80 had a few bullets already waiting in the chamber to help fans pass the time until then. The “Solitary Bizness” EP was released a couple weeks ago, and it serves as a surprisingly strong set of songs that sum up not only where the band has been, but hints at where they might be going in the future.
The EP’s title track is probably going to wind up on the new album, as two versions of the song serve as bookends at the start and finish. Kicking things off is the “single edit” version, which is fun and funky the way most great Tahiti 80 songs are. There’s some serious bass at the heart of the melody, but various percussive elements mixed with some spiky keyboards build off that basic structure into a frenzy as the chorus slams you again and again with beautiful vocal harmonies. The “short version” of “Crack Up” has a little bit of a lighter feel to it, and probably the best thing about this song are the kitchen sink’s worth of percussion they use. Cowbell, wood blocks, live drums, drum machines and a host of other beats create extra spice in this track that lives up to its name by falling to pieces both vocally and instrumentally before exploding into a huge dance party that no doubt will be extended for the non-“short version” of the song. On the more experimental side of things, “A Night In the City” has a sing-songy spoken word vocal on the verses and a normally sung chorus. The main point of this track seems to be the lyrics, as they do tell a story about one man’s crazy evening in Paris on a date with a girl where they go dancing and to a party and things get a bit “wild”. Interesting stuff, but it is the sort of thing you don’t do more than a couple times at most and are smart to reserve it for an EP such as this one. Bouncy electro-pop is what “Keys to the City” has to offer, and while it starts out on the right foot, the song winds up being not very memorable. Perhaps it’s that there’s little to no differentiation instrumentally between the verses and the chorus, so the song feels rather static despite having a good beat. For fans of Tahiti 80’s oldest material, “Cool Down” is very lovely. For the complete lack of guitars virtually everywhere else on the EP, that this song starts with a crisply strummed acoustic guitar is surprising but also nice. Of course after the first verse a melodica, synths and other electronic elements all begin popping up until they eventually drown out the guitar altogether for a brief period. As things break down at the end though, those things slowly drift away until we’re left with just some skittering beats and a touch of melodica. Finally, “Solitary Bizness” returns with a quick 2 minute “folk version” that’s anchored by a lone acoustic guitar with just a touch of assistance from an electric guitar at certain moments. Breaking the song down to its barest bones is a nice and completely different way to view it, focusing more on the melody and strong vocal performances.
Those already familiar with Tahiti 80 can look at the “Solitary Bizness” EP as another healthy addition to their already-great collection of music. At six tracks, not every one is a winner, but there’s a certain admiration that goes along with some of the things the band tries here. The first two tracks feel a lot like the Tahiti 80 most people love, and there’s a very good chance both those songs will appear on the band’s upcoming album in a slightly different form. The midsection has its issues, but “A Night In the City” fares best as an area they haven’t really explored sonically before. The best marriage of old school and new school comes courtesy of “Cool Down”, and though it may not have the silly throwback pop energy of their best work, it opens up an interesting can of worms that could serve as conceptual fodder for the next record in a really good sort of way. It’ll be another couple months before “The Past, The Present & The Possible” arrives for everyone to consume, but thanks in large part to this EP, we have good reason to be excited. Now if only the band could make a Phoenix-like imprint on America, everything would be right as rain.
Earlier this year, Kristian Matsson released “The Wild Hunt”, his second album under the moniker The Tallest Man on Earth. It remains one of the strongest releases of 2010, highly engaging andworking with the most basic tools of a singer-songwriter platform. Armed with just an acoustic guitar (or occasionally a piano) and a voice, Matsson’s singing and songwriting style both have echoes of early Bob Dylan in the best sorts of ways. The songs evoke the desolate highways of America, lined on both sides by nothing but sun, sand and cacti as you roll past in your car. All this from a guy that has called Sweden home for his entire life. For those that just couldn’t get enough of Matsson’s sparse folk stylings, he’s yet another artist pulling double duty this year by releasing additional music in the form of an EP. While you’d expect such small collections of tracks to be castoffs or b-sides, Matsson claims the songs that appear on “Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird” were all written this past summer after “The Wild Hunt” was released. And while these five songs are supposed to function as a standalone collection representative of a certain place and time, they tend to fall right in line with what we’ve come to expect from The Tallest Man on Earth, though with a small surprise or two.
One little difference between “The Wild Hunt” and the “Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird” EP is overall mood. All the hallmarks of The Tallest Man on Earth’s sound are there, including the complex acoustic guitar picking and relatively cryptic but always fascinating lyrics, yet the new EP is a bit of a darker affair. Matsson sounds more reflective and down on his luck than before, and that results in songs that forego much of the triumphant melodies found on the last album. The exploration of this heavier emotion is primarily only limited to the lyrics though, as there’s still some pep in his guitar. Speaking of that, if this EP contains one singular shocker, it’s the use of electric guitar on “The Dreamer”. For two albums, Matsson never once picked up an electric guitar, and perhaps as part of an experiment, he does so here. There’s a tiny bit of reverb thrown in for good measure too, and the whole thing is pretty unexpected. For a guy that makes his living with just one instrument and a voice, a change like that is a big deal, even if the quality stays consistent (which it does). He could have done virtually the same thing with his acoustic (minus the reverb) and it would have been right in line with the rest of the EP. Why he “went electric” that one time remains a mystery, and while the difference is a little jarring, there’s a strange comfort to see him mixing it up too.
As a full EP of original songs, “Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird” is yet another delightful release from The Tallest Man on Earth. What he takes from these songs in regards to future releases remains to be seen, but so long as Kristian Matsson continues to measure out his music in a modest and heartfelt way, he’ll continue to be an artist worth paying attention to. He’s ostensibly proof that the folk singer-songwriter format isn’t dead, just in need of a strong voice and smart guitar player. There’s very good reason why you’ll get deadly silent crowds at Tallest Man on Earth shows, and it’s not just because they’re all trying to hear. The guy could be playing at your local Starbucks and people would wait to order so as to not interrupt a song. Simply put, not only is the music itself impressive, but the way it’s presented is as well. The albums and this EP give you a pretty good set of expectations, and the live show delivers on those in spades. If you’ve not heard The Tallest Man on Earth before, get at least one of his albums first. Then buy this EP. Then go see him live. They’re all essentials for an artist that may very well be our next Bob Dylan, albeit without the political bent.