Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Extended Play

The rise of vinyl proves that the death of the album has been greatly exaggerated. There are also those collections that are longer than a single and shorter than an LP, called EP's (for extended play). Whether released on plastic or digitally, EP's are still a great way for emerging bands to showcase more than a couple of songs or for established artists to keep up with demand with some bonus tracks or explore new territory. Here are the short-form albums that were part of what made 2014 a great year for music. I've also included a few one-offs, those occasional cases where one song was all you needed from a particular artist.

The Darcys - Hymn For A Missing Girl: When the Toronto quartet released this 21 minute epic on Record Store Day last year, I thought it signaled a promising new direction for the band. Taking all their love of darkness and inexorable drive into a long through-composed piece without losing any of their toughness, Hymn is a cinematic experience of a kind only hinted at in their three excellent albums (one a death-defying full-album cover of Steely Dan's Aja). 

Alas, it was not to be. The Darcys Hymn is also their epitaph as they announced their dissolution late last year. And it's a piece of music that will haunt you, from the ethereal choral beginning through the techno-ambient middle, which ends in a sonic smash cut to silence. From there, it builds back up, gaining speed and fury like a corroded TGV gaining traction on icy rails (Snowpiercer, anyone?), before heading into a long elegiac finale. It's simply great and I look forward to observing as generations to come discover the brief but potent catalog of The Darcys. 

Jason Couse (vocals, guitars, keys) and Wes Marskell (drums) are planning to continue working together, with an eye to translating their musical mastery into a more commercial enterprise. I wish them every success and have a feeling that whatever they end up doing it will be interesting. 

Isadora - Predators EP: I've often named them among Brooklyn's finest and this EP, consisting of three new songs and two from their debut, does a great job of consolidating their strengths. Come On Back, which I sang for a week after hearing it live for the first time, is one of the great songs of the year (cool video, too), featuring both a catchy chorus and visceral crunch. The song is undeniable and saw them start to get some well-deserved radio play. Their new management might have had something to do with that, as well. Whatever it is, momentum is building so catch a hold now. See them rule the stage at Mercury Lounge on January 21 - you'll thank me later. Album in 2015? We can only hope.

Moses Sumney - Mid-City Island: Sumney has a beautiful voice and a warm spirit, as evidenced by the five songs and sketches on this debut. There's some jazzy balladry here and some sun-kissed psych-folk, all adding up to a soaring and singular sonic vision. It all feels very dewy and fresh and I think we'll be hearing much more from Sumney in the future.

DeSoto - Sense Of Space: Matthew Silberman, an excellent sax player and composer, does more than blow his horn on this quirky and soulful musical adventure. I could go on about it at length - in fact I already did. The rest is up to you.

Seth Graham - Goop: Graham has been hoeing several rows in the underground scene for the last few years, running a label, creating album art, and releasing music. As expected, Goop is a bit of a mess, but in a very smart and colorful way. There is a sense of direction and editing to these atmospheric tracks which keeps you listening. One of the tracks is called This Is Just A Tape, a bit of self-deprecation that is likely a protective feint - Graham is talented and ambitious. Follow his winding path starting here.

Pere Ubu - Golden Surf II: This legendary band, with origins in the smog-filled halcyon of 1976 Cleveland, has been quietly resurgent in the last couple of years. David Thomas & Co. have drawn renewed creativity partly by embracing their dark side. This EP is a concentrated blast of their unsettling transmissions and is all the more effective due to that concision. If you want more they also released a full-length in 2014.

The GOASTT - Long Gone: Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl have been performing Syd Barrett's Long Gone in concert for a while now, helping the song to a more fully realized state than its author was capable of at the time. Fortunately they found time to put Long Gone on tape for posterity - and our listening pleasure. I'd like to think Barrett would feel vindicated. He knew it was a great song! The EP also features two songs that would have fit nicely on the wonderful Midnight Sun album.

Ex Hex - "Hot and Cold" b/w "Waterfall" & "Everywhere": Mary Timoney's work with Helium is one of the great lost edifices of the 90's. I even had to stick up for their smeared, off-kilter art-punk back then, endeavoring to enjoy a show at the Knitting Factory as my wife and my friend tried to convince me I shouldn't. Ex Hex has Timoney and a hand-picked cohort bashing through short, sharp songs in a much more straight-ahead vein than Helium. The album, Rips, has been getting a lot of love but all I really need are these three songs, a quick blast of power-trio fun. If I listen to more, it just starts to seem like a retreat.

Epic 45 - Monument: Specializing in ambient folk-based song-scapes, Epic 45 have an expert hand at combining electronic textures and live instruments, bringing to life a certain melancholy that feels universal and deeply personal at the same time. David Sylvian's Gone To Earth may or may not be a touchstone for them, but certainly fans of that landmark album will find a lot to like here. Then work your way back to Weathering, one of my Top Ten albums from 2012.


Of the ubiquitous songs that were unavoidable during the year, Pharrell's Happy was probably the most fun, delivering pop uplift on a cushion of his trademark chords, which are always just slightly unexpected. While it was so slight that it seemed to vanish as you listened to it, at least it didn't have the machine-tooled calculation of so much of the Top 40.

While Pharrell is behind one of the best dance songs in history (Hot In Herre, but of course), Happy's bounce wouldn't get me on the floor. That task would be left to Jungle's Busy Earnin', which had an insinuating groove and a martial tightness that made it irresistible. Yes, it was 90's enough that I half-expected to see Caron Wheeler and Jazzie B in the video, but who cares? As long as we're asking questions, who needed a whole album of diminishing returns? Not me.

Finally, I keep up with Memphis Industries mainly to keep up with the Brewis brothers who are always churning out something interesting, whether under the Field Music moniker or School of Language. This year, the latter formation released a pretty good album that felt a little rote and Peter Brewis put out an intriguing and arty collaboration with Peter Smith that is worth seeking out. But the one essential song that my email subscription delivered to me was an odd little gem called Cockeyed Rabbit Wrapped In Plastic, released under the name Slug, actually Ian Black, who used to play bass for Field Music. Every time it came up in a shuffle play, it had me scrabbling for my iPod so I could confirm exactly what it was before it disappeared again.

With patented prog-tastic drumming from Peter Brewis, this is a perfect construction of light vocals and heavy white funk. Cockeyed Rabbit is the sound of XTC (when they were Helium Boyz) meeting Bill Nelson (when he was Red Noise) and isn't that something you always knew you needed? It's up to you to make sure it doesn't become the great lost track of 2014.

Still To Come: The final rehash of last year will be Out Of The Past, featuring reissues and other older sounds.

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