A Modest Proposal in Defense of the EP

I’m a Modest Mouse fan–more or less old news, for those who know me–and my recent fixation has been a revolving cycle of classic Modest Mouse songs: “Night on the Sun,” “Here It Comes,” “King Rat,” “All Night Diner”. Except these aren’t classics. In fact, they’re relatively forgotten because none of them is featured on a single LP. Nor is the National’s excellent “Sin-Eaters,”, nor Interpol’s darkly seductive “Specialist,” nor The Decemberists’ 18-minute epic “The Tain.” These are songs that too few people have, because they were relegated to the lowly EP.

In an era in which music is increasingly consumed by either buying single tracks on iTunes or shelling out $25 for an album on vinyl, the half-length EP is often forgotten.

It shouldn’t be.

An EP is a chance for exploration, both for the listener and an artist. On an EP you can hear an artist test their limits in ways that they might not feel comfortable doing on a full-length, big-budget album. Take for example the National’s “Wake Up Your Saints,” an outtake from their 2010 LP High Violet. The opening saxophone notes announce a distinctly different band than you see on their full-lengths: “Wake Up Your Saints” is unusually fun, closer to bright and bubbly than the bleak and somber tone the band typically adopts. It’s interesting to hear what an alternate version of the National would sound like, sans the wine-induced-introspection. From this you can see the importance of self-editing; while “Wake Up Your Saints” is a terrific song, where would it be placed on High Violet? After the anxious “Afraid of Everyone”? Before the stately “England”? It simply doesn’t fit on the album, and I’m glad they cut it. But not being deemed worthy of an album doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

To cycle around back to Modest Mouse, you only have to listen to their 2001 EP Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks to realize that it’s one of the most dynamic and interesting releases in their catalog. Consisting of outtakes and demos for songs that didn’t make their 2001 masterpiece The Moon & AntarcticaEverywhere (I refuse to type that atrocious title every time) has a scope and range that’s energetically and terrifyingly ambitious. It’s a testament to the fertility of the M&A sessions that tracks like “Night on the Sun,” an 8-minute meditation on the meaning of apocalypse, or “You’re the Good Things,” one of Modest Mouse’s most unexpectedly uplifting songs, were the leftovers. It is, once again, a display of an artist’s capacity to self-edit. “3rd Planet” is the obvious opener of The Moon & Antarctica; the cryptic invitation of “Willful Suspension of Disbelief” had nowhere to go. With the drugged-out stomp of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” monopolizing the crazy, there can be no space left for the voodoo of “3 Inch Horses, Two Faced Monsters.”

There’s a tendency among record buyers today to buy albums that are deemed classic–I’m reminded of a Portlandia sketch that starts with Fred Armison stating that he needs to buy a classic Muddy Waters album just because he “should” have a Muddy Waters album. The macro, the big picture, Art with a capital A, big, powerful, sweeping, fully-formed and polished, is so strongly admired that everything else falls between the cracks. The number of people who have In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on their iTunes, but not On Avery Island, or who love every track on Funeral but have never heard Arcade Fire EP, is staggering. An EP is an opportunity to really get to know a band: how they write, what limits they want to push, and how they judge and evaluate their own art. It’s a chance to step through the music and into the perspective of the creator, to hear their music as they hear it.

So please, next time you’re browsing your local record store and have a choice between a 5-song EP or an 11-song LP for $14, give the former some consideration. How else are you going to hear as deeply personal of a line as “Out of breath and out of cash, find yourself watching M*A*S*H”? Found in a song barely over a minute long, buoyed by backwards bass and plinking keyboard, and followed by a line as wide-eyed as “So much beauty it could make you cry,” it’s the kind of endearing, revealing, small-scale ambition that can only exist one place: an EP.

- Jamie Stoike