The Thinking Man's Take On: EPs

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A couple weeks ago I talked about the concept of the album in this space, and somebody by the handle of “Knatterjak” shared the tidbit that “The EP is the future”.That got me thinking – is the EP the new album?Is orange really the new pink?

EPs, loosely defined, are short albums.Strictly defined, Extended Play records are records made up of 4 songs (plus alternative versions) or 25 minutes of music.This strict definition, however, is often subverted – specifically through artists adding the letters “EP” to the end of longer releases. Autechre, for instance, released “EP7”, a collection of more than an hour of music divided into 11 tracks.They were permitted to get away with it because they are Autechre, and they are just weird like that.

EPs, like most good things, originated during the vinyl era, when singles reigned and people gathered around the phonograph to hear the latest tunes from bands that were “the bee’s knees” and “the cat’s pajamas”.They were developed in direct competition to the 45” single, with narrower grooves making it possible to fit more music onto the same size record.Since those golden olden days, however, the EP has taken on a life of its own, morphing into distinct forms that serve a variety of purposes.Just for funsies, I thought I’d outline the different types of EPs that I’ve seen, along with my favorite examples of each type.I’m almost undoubtedly leaving some types out, or ignoring some classic EPs, so please feel free to mock me ruthlessly.

1.The Debut EP

This type of EP makes a ton of sense – it’s a test, a chance for a young band to prove that they can garner a following, win some fans, and get people interested in a full length release.It’s often hurried, rushed out onto the market to ride a wave of buzz or a strong single.I would imagine that thousands of trial EPs are released every year, and only a handful ever gain traction.A recent example of this is Passion Pit’s Chunk of Change EP, which took a number of songs written by a single dude (Michael Angelakos) and put a band behind it.The EP is great – buzzy, peppy, and full of great ideas, and accomplished the explicit goal of building hype for an emerging band.MGMT and Bloc Party both used the debut EP perfectly to create a wave of anticipation which they later rode to mainstream album success.

2.The We Have 4 Great Songs EP

These EPs are beautiful creations.A band comes up with a handful of incredible tracks that are untouchable - and rather than stuffing an album full of filler tunes, they decide to release a short but sweet EP.If Knatterjak is right and the EP is the future, then the future will be built on these releases.The perfect snapshots of a band’s moment in time.Some people might not have the attention span for a full hour-long album, but if you can’t spare 20 minutes for these 4 or 5 incredible tracks, well then you are missing out.The perfect example of the We Have 4 Great Songs EP is TV On The Radio’s Young Liars EP.It’s also a Debut EP, but it’s so exquisitely crafted that it doesn’t seem that way.This album, in my mind, remains the band’s most impressive release – every band should aspire to release such a spotless EP.

3.The We Have 2 Great Songs EP

Quickly on the heels of the We Have 4 Great Songs EP is the We Have 2 Great Songs EP, the bastard cousin of the aforementioned exquisite work.These EPs are built around a couple standout tracks – too good to be a single, but not enough to wrap an entire album around.So bands take those two tracks, record a few other throwaway tunes (and probably an acoustic or live version of one of the two great tracks) and put it out as an EP, confident that the solid tunes will be able to carry the mediocre songs to good sales numbers.And it usually works – because sitting through 12 minutes of bad music for 8 minutes of good music is completely tolerable.If it were an album it would be another story, but since the EP is so digestible, even the less than stellar tracks seem pretty good.Perfect example?MGMT’s Time To Pretend EP.I’m probably going to get some push back on this one, but let’s face facts.“Kids” and “Time To Pretend” are amazing songs.“Boogie Down” and “Love Always Remains” not so much.The quintessential We Have 2 Great Songs EP.

4.The Between Albums EP

While the first three EP types are usually associated with young and upcoming bands, these next three are typically utilized by more established artists.The first of these is the Between Albums EP.It usually hits after a few full length releases, in the lull between albums 3 & 4 or 4 & 5.It’s a taste to keep fans happy, to keep the artist on the radar.It’s also an opportunity to branch out, try some new things, switch styles a bit, and generally experiment in a less serious setting.No one is going to feel ripped off if an EP isn’t a polished final product – they’re looking for a familiar artist in a new setting.My favorite example of the Between Albums EP is Brother Ali’s recent The Truth Is Here EP.At 9 songs and 34 minutes, it could have been easily stretched to a subpar album.Instead, Ali chose to keep it succinct and lower expectations a little bit.It works perfectly – Ali talks a little bit more than usual at the beginnings and ends of tracks, and the EP is a breath of fresh air.This Between Albums EP definitely got me excited for Brother Ali’s next “real” release.

5.The Old Dog New Tricks EP

The Old Dog New Tricks EP, what an enigma.These are EPs that generally involve some sort of gimmick – a situation you’ve never heard the band in before.They often take the form of a live recording, a remix album, an acoustic record, a covers collection.No EP style is more unpredictable than the Old Dog New Tricks EP.Sometimes a band will completely shine, bringing new phrasing and energy to familiar tunes.The recording will be sparkling, the sound quality great, and the entire EP enjoyably listenable.Other times, however, the release will be shoddy, the recording will sound like it was done on a cell phone, and you’ll be able to actually hear the monetary desperation being recorded. No EP style varies so widely in overall quality.I think the best (and fairest) example of the Old Dog New Tricks EP is Cold War Kids’ Acoustic At The District EP.The album combines the Acoustic EP, the Live EP, AND the Covers EP and is both super enjoyable and nearly un-listenable.The songs are great – fun takes on ”The Littlest Birds” and “Fast As You Can” anchor the release – but the recording quality is awful and the EP quickly loses its charm.I would pay double money for a studio/soundboard quality recording of these songs, and it’s a textbook of the Old Dog New Tricks EP falling just a bit short.

6.The B-Sides EP

The last of the EP styles, again usually reserved for established bands, is the B-Sides EP.This one is pretty self explanatory – made up of pre-recorded tracks that didn’t make the cut for an official album release.They are the extras and scraps of a recording session, unreleased tunes that are often wonderful if a bit underdeveloped.These EPs gain cult followings, are collected by record junkies, and are testaments to true fanhood.The best example of this type of EP in my mind is Radiohead’s My Iron LungEP, a collection of outtakes from The Bends’ studio sessions.It’s a must have for most fans, and some of the tracks (notably “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong”) have become concert staples and fan favorites.My Iron Lung was followed by EPs Airbag/How Am I Driving?, which features B-sides from the OK Computer recording sessions, and the even more cultish Com Lag (2plus2isfive), which features B-sides from the Hail To The Thief sessions.B-Sides EPs, for an established band, stretch each note to the fullest extent of the dollar, while giving fans a little extra taste of what went into making each album.A win-win situation, if you ask me.

So I’ve gotten a little off topic, but I think it’s a worthwhile diversion.If most EPs can be lumped into those 6 categories, are EPs really the future?In many ways, I’m tempted to say yes – the blogosphere is increasingly dominated by remixes and covers, and EPs of that sort are a natural next step.Elsewhere, the increasingly quick music production and release cycle suggests that artists would be better off crafting shorter, rougher outlines of albums and releasing them as EPs rather than spending the extra time to polish albums that will only be ripped and leaked with reckless abandon.And EPs remain a good way for record companies to test the water with new bands without requiring a significant monetary output.

But there remains a romanticism around LPs that will likely keep them in the limelight for at least a little while longer.There is something to be said for an album that can wow you from beginning to end that is tough to match in half an hour.Already this year we have seen a number of brilliant full lengths – the Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and more have all proven that the album as a format is alive and kicking.EPs are growing, on the way to becoming more common and more respected, but for now they remain in the future, waiting for their present to arrive.

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature, as well as album reviews, here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily posts at his daily music blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.  His favorite EPs are El Paso and Elvis Presley.