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Unextended Play 

Putting the compact back in compact disc

Wednesday, May 27 1998
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Whither the EP? Withered, mostly. Hardly anyone records these precious little anachronisms anymore, and that canon-making Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critic's Poll doesn't even include an EP category.

Indeed, why, in this glorious era of CD data compression, would anyone want to make a concise artistic statement in 25 minutes when they could blather on for 75? Call me sentimental, but once upon a time, whole lives were measured out in LP sides. 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? HYsker DY's Metal Circus? All those glorious early New Zealand waxings by the Clean and the Bats? Even dream merchants like the Cocteau Twins appreciated the fact that, on occasion, time is best stopped in half-hour increments.

A small revival of interest in EPs seems to be under way. It's surprising, 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 nom de cut Recloose. On So This Is the Dining Room (Planet E; 23:30), this Detroit-area shut-in tips his beanie to Motor City techno while derailing the freight train of its history into his own overgrown back yard. 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 "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 whistleman on this sorta 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 a box set. Instead of the primordial oozings of Songs of a Dead Dreamer or the impenetrable noisecore he 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 cut-creating with the Four Horsemen and their steeds breathing down the mixmaster's neck. But the guy's developing his sense of humor, too, thankfully, and the balance of pleasure and pain here is just right.

The remix has always been a good excuse for an EP, either as an anchor for a clutch of songs or, in the case of multiple remixes, 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 is a one-off collaboration between NYC's Ui (featuring beat scholar Sasha Frere-Jones) and Stereolab who collectively nod to their electro-pop poppa on Fires (Bingo; 26:33). It's centered around four radically different readings of Eno's "St. Elmo's Fire," a song for which I have an unnaturally great affection. (It's a cool and swoony number from Eno's classic Another Green World; just go out and buy it and I'll shut up.) 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 second-generation Percy Jones 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 "Ode to Billie Joe"-inspired title song. 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, you also get compositions by 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, the group is entitled to indulge small pleasures. After all, that's what EPs are all about.

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Will Hermes

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