Drop Your Shorts

Bit player: Beth Orton's new EP makes a statement in 24:49.

Whither the EP? Withered, mostly. Hardly anyone makes these precious little anachronisms anymore. And that canon-making Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll recently canned its EP category. Why, you may ask, in this glorious era of CD data compression, would anyone want to make a concise artistic statement in 25 minutes when you can blather on for 75?

Call me sentimental, but once upon a time, whole lives could be measured out on one LP side. A lot could be said in 20-some minutes, and the musical arc, like a good symphony, could be savored in a single sitting without evoking Chinese water torture. A good pop EP, even though you had to flip the vinyl versions, worked the same way. Remember R.E.M.'s Chronic Town? New Order's 1981-1982? Hüsker Dü's Metal Circus? All those glorious waxings by early New Zealand bands like the Clean and the Bats? Even drone-merchants like the Cocteau Twins appreciated the fact that, on occasion, their dream states might be best experienced in half-hour increments.

Thankfully, a small revival of interest in EPs seems to be underway. I'm surprised, though, that some of the sharpest recent EPs have come from the DJ music camp, a less-than-laconic bunch who, God help us, are otherwise making the double-CD format de rigueur.

So give thanks for Matt Chicoine, who currently represents under the tag Recloose. On So This Is the Dining Room (Planet E; running time--23:30), this Detroit-area shut-in tips his beanie to Motor City techno while derailing the freight train of its history. Scratchin' tracks amid robot voices and knotty snare beats (the latter influenced by Planet E guru Carl Craig, Detroit techno's current MVP), Chicoine drops bits of '70s pop melodies and dark, gospel-flavored keyboard figures. It all builds up to a two-track finale, "Noodles" and "Dislocate," where the meeting ground between free jazz and DJ techniques gets a remarkable going over. If Rahsaan Roland Kirk were alive today, he'd be whistle man on this railroad.

Even more surprising is Synthetic Fury (Asphodel; 28:10) by DJ Spooky, a guy who has so many ideas about sound deployment, I half-expected this to be a box set. Instead of the primordial oozings of Songs of a Dead Dreamer or the impenetrable noise-core Spooky sometimes drops live, Synthetic Fury gets with the funky beats, dissecting ancient voices while string loops (snipped from George Crumb's Black Angels, or some such modernist screed) whirl overhead. Through passages of martial-sounding dub and harsh No U Turn-style drum 'n' bass freakouts, Spooky gets pretty spooky: This is sound mixing with the four horsemen and their steeds breathing down the DJ's neck. But the guy's developing his sense of humor, too, and the balance of pleasure and pain here is just right.

The remix has always been a good excuse for an EP, either as anchor for a clutch of songs, or, in the case of multiple mixes, an EP unto itself. This latter strategy has its limits, which Brian Eno found with the interminable maxi-single of Nerve Net's "Fractal Zoom"--12 remixes that, at 70 minutes, ran longer than the LP (it's one of those jokes that's more amusing on your shelf than in your CD player). Uilab are a one-off collaboration between NYC's Ui (featuring beat-scholar Sasha Frere-Jones) and Stereolab, who collectively nod to Eno on Fires (Bingo; 26:33).

The record is centered around four radically different readings of this electro-pop poppa's "St. Elmo's Fire," a song for which I have an unnaturally great affection (just go out and buy Another Green World, okay?). Punctuated with two originals--including a beautiful jam around a Sun Ra sample called "Impulse Rah!"--and playing the cool vocals of Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen against Ui's sexy drum machines and rubbery bass-line sculptures, Fires is a perfect slice of cubist pop.

The shorthand form of the EP is the single with lots of B-sides tacked on, which usually plays like exactly that. Beth Orton's new Best Bit EP (Dedicated; 24:49) features her beautifully mumbled Sandy Denny-isms on the title track. But it dovetails nicely into four unreleased tracks, two of which are delicious collaborations with Terry Callier, the starry-eyed soul folkie without whose '70s recordings Ben Harper might be fronting a Hendrix cover band on the Sunset Strip.

Yo La Tengo tap a similar flavor on their Little Honda maxi-single (Matador; 25:15) with covers of William DeVaughn's vintage groove-hymn "Be Thankful for What You Got" and Sandy Denny's lovely "By the Time It Gets Dark." A sort of mini-Fakebook, the record also features covers of the Kinks, the Urinals, Gram Parsons, and a justifiably unlisted stumble through Queen's "We Are the Champions." Its pleasures are small but poignant, and having made the best rock record of '97, Yo La Tengo is entitled to indulge in small pleasures. After all, that's what EPs are all about.

 
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