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Less Is More

Indie Rock Downsizes on a Host of New EPs

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 7/25/2001

Blame it on the recession. After all, everybody else is economizing, from large corporations laying off employees to whomever it was who edited Jar Jar Binks out of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and distributed the results on the Web. Why shouldn't rock musicians exercise this minimalist approach?

At least, that's one possible explanation for the unexpected burst of excellent EPs this year. Longer than a single (three songs minimum), shorter than an album (half-hour tops), identifiable with one or the other medium in a pinch but not really belonging to either camp, the EP is a confusing format perfect for a confusing time, a downsized medium for downsized expectations and pocket money.

EPs are hardly indigenous to indie-rockers, as fans of Ice Cube's Kill at Will, Moby's Move, and the Judds' self-titled debut are well aware. But from postpunk classics such as R.E.M.'s Chronic Town and Hüsker Dü's Metal Circus to alt-rock touchstones like Fugazi's Margin Walker and Pavement's Perfect Sound Forever, indie is where the format thrives. Singles are meant to be snappy; albums, enduring statements. But a good EP is more like a self-contained objet d'art--perfect for the kind of small-scale visionaries who want to handcraft their statements, particularly given the treatment major labels have tended to give bands that don't ship mega-platinum since grunge fell out of favor.

But maybe best of all is the EP's flexibility--it's perfect for a number of different purposes. Face it: Most of the time an established band releases an EP just to dump its leftovers. Stereolab, for instance, follows nearly every album it makes with a five-to-seven-song platter. In cases like this, you're usually better off just buying the original album and leaving the EP for completists. But with the five-song EP Let's Go!, Denver's psychedelic candy-poppers the Apples in Stereo accomplish the reverse. This EP is actually more fun than its predecessor, last year's loopy The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone.

The most instructive cut on Let's Go! may be the least effective, a ragtag run through the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" recorded at a Chicago concert last year. Head Apple Robert Schneider, who also arranges and produces fellow Elephant 6 groups Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, has long gotten better results from aping Brian Wilson's production techniques than damn near anyone else (he even dubbed his basement recording complex Pet Sounds Studios); the lackluster live "Heroes" only underlines his studio mastery. At home in his basement, Schneider makes even acoustic demos like the EP's title track (the Apples' contribution to the Powerpuff Girls soundtrack) and Moone's "Stream Running Over" sparkle just as brightly as the finished versions.

But all that's gravy; you'll want Let's Go! for its sole new song, "If You Want to Wear a Hat," which may be the best thing the band has ever recorded: crisp slow-motion, semi-funky drums; laconic two-chord strum; irresistible "ooh-ooh-ooh" chorus; and the kind of melody that seems silly until you find yourself humming it in your sleep. The words are definitely silly: "So you need to get a job/ For that you must stop dressing like a slob" sums it up. But they're totally charming too--how many indie types would write a song giving utilitarian fashion tips? Plus, the EP has the hands-down best cover art of the year, a Craig McCracken cartoon of the five-piece band looking like a scruffier Archies, with drummer Hilarie Sidney's hair flying off to the side as she smiles beatifically, sticks midair. Hey, Robert, where's that children's album already?

Another use for the EP is the dreaded Side Project. Take, for instance, the aforementioned Stereolab, whose ongoing kitsch-reclamation project tends to wear rather quickly. So why should you care about its bassist's soundtrack-fusion-schlock side project? Because it happens to be really good. The self-titled debut of Imitation Electric Piano, led by 'Lab bassist Simon Johns, who plays guitar here, breaks absolutely no new ground. But by combining the cheesiest elements of early jazz-funk grooves (Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul), hippie-era soundtrack noodling (David Axelrod), and college-radio studio-rattery (High Llamas, Tortoise), it creates a pretty delectable fondue. And since fondue is something you snack on rather than make a meal out of, 21 minutes' worth is plenty.

The Strokes are similarly backward-looking, only their gaze is concentrated on the golden age of Bowery rock. Signed to RCA, they'll release their first full-length this fall, hyped more than any New York rock band since, um, Jonathan Fire*Eater. Meantime, you can get ahead of the pack with their crappily recorded three-song debut, The Modern Age. The Strokes are as Velvet Underground-damaged as any band I've ever heard; Julian Casablancas' vocals on the title track make me wonder whether Lou Reed shouldn't sue for royalties. Likewise, the quintet's monolithic rhythmic sense and clanging, straight-up-and-down guitars are what the Velvets would've sounded like if Sterling Morrison knew only bar chords. The barely-out-of-their-teens guys in the band are something of a cartoon, but they're cute enough--both musically and stylistically--to get away with it.

And, hey, at least they haven't recorded any ballads (yet). Not so Washington's the Dismemberment Plan, whose slowed-to-a-crawl cover of Jennifer Paige's "Crush" exemplifies how lovelorn mumbling over amplifier hiss has become the indie-rock equivalent of the power ballad. But that track is the only misfire on Juno and the Dismemberment Plan, the Plan's new split EP with Juno, one of Seattle's best bands. The concept here is simple: one original and one cover apiece. Juno's "Non-Equivalents" is a brooding storm, and its cover of DJ Shadow's "High Noon" rocks hard enough to get you wondering what a compilation of rock bands covering sampledelic material would sound like. But the prize goes to the Plan, whose "The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich" contains enough cartoon gunfire and fire-engine whistles to accompany Travis Morrison's spastic, 100-mph word barrage and pay appropriately geeky tribute to Outkast's "Bombs Over Baghdad," which "Gets Rich" was allegedly inspired by.

Finally, the undisputed king of the indie EP is Belle and Sebastian, which regularly sates its cult with between-album progress reports such as This Is Just a Modern Rock Song and the trio of four-song gems collected on last year's Lazy Line Painter Jane box. The new Belle and Sebastian Sing Jonathan David, the first of three projected not-quite-full-lengths scheduled for this year, continues the slightly harder-edged feel of last year's Legal Man EP--which, this being Belle and Sebastian, means it doesn't sound completely like gauze. As usual, the group covers the lyrical bases--a tongue-in-cheek Biblical metaphor (title tune), a tongue-in-cheek portrait of office angst ("Take Your Carriage Clock and Shove It"), and a tongue-in-cheek portrait of autumnal loneliness ("The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner")--all wrapped in B&S' trademark damnably catchy melodies.

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