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Extended Play

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Songs removed due to copyright infringement. 
Home From War - Frightened Rabbit
Sometimes He Does - Lori McKenna
Faded Heart - School of Seven Bells

We are on the precipice of the Era of Extended Play.

If you’re not a big music listener, you might not even know what an EP is. The simplified Musical Length Heirarchy goes something like this:
In many instances, “EP” has come to many any release of music that is more than a single and less than a full length LP. The generally-accepted standard has been that an EP will contain 4-6 songs and run between 20-30 minutes in length. Best I can tell, none of this is subject to rules, regulations or standards, so “EP” is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Growing up, I hated EPs. In my experience, they were collections intended to punish true fans, because they cost more, dollar for dollar and song for song, than the LPs and rarely had the same level of consistent quality. Charge the real fans more for afterthoughts solely for the purpose of feeling somehow more knowledgeable than "casual" fans. Yeah, no thanks.

In the past year, I’ve purchased and acquired more EPs than the last 20 years combined. The only EP I ever truly loved before this year was Beaster, Sugar’s 30-minute maglev train to the deepest pits of the angry human heart.

EPs are coming out of the woodwork lately, and it makes total sense in our short-attention span MP3 era of $1 singles and ever-shrinking album sales. An artist with 15 songs could release a single album with the now-expected “bonus tracks” for $10 or less (often $6-7 on eMusic), or they could release three EPs for $4-5 each. The latter option especially makes sense for those with a reliable stable of followers or those aiming to sign a big recording contract. Think of it this way: If you need to hit a bullseye, would you rather have one dart or three?

My pal Bob suggested a similar sentiment this summer when he proclaimed the glory of LPs “Under 40” minutes in length. However, Bob has also admitted several times that he rarely even buys entire albums anymore and generally samples 3-4 songs instead. All too often, even 40 minutes is too long.

The reality of our new world is that we rarely have even half an hour of uninterrupted time in our daily lives. When I bought Rush’s Clockwork Angels last summer, it took me three days to get through the 66-minute concept album. It took me several more listens -- we’re talking weeks now -- to start appreciating (and, OK, mocking... just a little) the storyline underneath the songs. It was exhausting, which is not generally how I derive joy from music.

By contrast, the new EP by School of Seven Bells, Put Your Sad Down, is the perfect introduction to that band’s sound for novices to the band or the genre. Because I’m not obsessed with goth-pop-electronica, it’s the perfect background music for feeling creative and productive, and it’s the perfect length to match my work stretches. It would also have made one helluva supplementary soundtrack for Tron!

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole by Lori McKenna and State Hospital by Frightened Rabbit are both 5-song, perfect-length half-hour journeys, one down a country road with a stubbornly faithful married couple, the other through a small Scottish town with a bipolar tour guide. Both have such raw and naked emotional peaks that stretching the experience out another 30 minutes would almost be too much to bear, which is the way I often feel when listening to Lorraine, McKenna’s 2010 LP. It’s emotionally healthier to get through that thing in a few separate sittings.

Taylor Swift’s latest album -- which I like, mind you -- is 16 songs. One cannot help but seek out the easy-skips of a 16-song set, a way to pare down the experience to a more digestible experience. For my purposes moving forward, Red is an 11-song experience with five castoffs.

When the musical plate before you is five songs, there’s no pressure to find the detritus or cut the bait. It’s a musical experience even the harried and the hectic can enjoy. It’s a sonic coffee or smoke break rather than a full meal.

In the music world, there’s something exhilarating about leaving a meal still hungry for more, a feeling that’s all too rare. I get the feeling we’re going to start seeing more of the EP in the coming years. It’s the right length for our times.

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