Tiny Music
Three EPs: Two New, One Not So New

I just got back from California, where I celebrated the marriage of one of my oldest friends.

I met Mike Lachance about 18 years ago, in high school. Apparently, it’s an odd thing for high school friends to remain close throughout adulthood, but we have, and there’s something amazing about knowing someone for half your life. Amazingly, he’s been dating his new wife Kate for most of that time – they’ve been together for 14 years. That’s right, 14 years. At this point, getting married is really a formality – these two will be together forever, ring or no ring.

But if you’re going to do it, do it right, I always say, and man, they did it right. The wedding and reception were held at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, an unspeakably beautiful place. The ceremony itself was the first non-religious wedding I’ve been to, and it was wonderful. It was also very funny, and absolutely adorable. Kate had worked out a silent signal for the bridesmaids to hand her tissues for her eyes, which cracked everyone up. And Mike kept forgetting his lines. The irony of that is, he writes screenplays for a living.

For their first dance, Mike and Kate chose “The Luckiest,” by Ben Folds, and you could tell watching them that they both feel they are, in fact, the luckiest. It was one of those moments when I knew a song I loved would now and forever be associated with an event in my life, and I was so glad. “I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you…” Not a dry eye, I’m telling you.

The best man was Ray Tiberio, another of my closest friends, whom I also met in high school. His toast centered on friendship, on the bonds people build over nearly two decades, and I couldn’t agree with him more. I’m honored and overjoyed to have these people in my life, and to get to be there on the happiest days of their lives. As Mike and Kate can tell you, time deepens relationships, and solidifies them, and I feel so blessed to have the friends I’ve had for so long. Congratulations, Mike and Kate. Love to you both.

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It’s fascinating to me that the term “EP” has stuck around.

Like “b-side,” it’s a relic of an older, more analog time. Gather round, kids, and I’ll tell you the story. See, music used to come on slabs of vinyl called “records.” I kid, I kid. I know we still have these today, and they’re still surprisingly popular, but there was a time when vinyl records weren’t just one of the alternatives. All music – yes, all of it – came out on these black discs with grooves in them.

You had the album, a regular-sized record that contained a full complement of songs. But you also had the single, a smaller disc with (usually) two songs on it, the a-side and the b-side. Sometimes, though, a single would be released with more than just one b-side. You’d get four or five of them, and this was called an “extended play single.” Or, for short, an EP. These days, EP has come to mean a little album, something with only a few tunes, and it’s usually a debut project or a stopgap between “real” records.

I’m always at something of a loss when it comes to reviewing EPs. You just can’t use the same standards, because you’ll never get from five songs what you get from 12. By the same token, the shorter trips need to be that much more compelling – a dead spot in a 15-minute CD is worse than in one four times as long. There should be some reason these five or six songs have been released together, and not saved for a full album project. And you can’t judge them like proper albums. They are what they are.

Take The Open Door EP, the new release from Death Cab for Cutie. The band was right up front about this 17-minute offering: it’s made up of leftovers from the sessions for Narrow Stairs, their excellent album from last year. Given that, don’t expect that you will be as thrilled or as moved by this as you were by Stairs, or by its predecessor, Plans. But if you thought this band was getting just a bit big for its britches lately, The Open Door may be right up your alley. (Count the cliches! It’s like a drinking game.)

I considered Stairs more of a short story collection, after the engaging novel that was Plans. This new EP bears that out – it’s four more disconnected stories of lost love and relationships in disrepair. Musically, these songs are like the more average parts of Stairs, all driving-yet-wistful guitar pop with sweet little melodies, and they were clearly dropped in favor of more challenging material. But these are nice little songs, worth having on their own.

My favorite is “My Mirror Speaks,” with its twin guitar and vocal melodies. Ben Gibbard has a splendid pop-rock voice, and he proves it here, singing a difficult verse and then reaching for a flawless falsetto in the chorus. He turns a mean phrase too: “My mirror speaks with irreverence, like a soldier I can’t command, as it sees the frightened child in the body of a full grown man…”

“A Diamond and a Tether” is a sad love letter from a guy who can’t commit, and Gibbard describes him as “a boy who won’t jump when he falls in love, he just stands with his toes on the edge…” And “I Was Once a Loyal Lover” is the spryest song here, yet another tale of a man frightened of commitment. (Perhaps freedom from relationships is the open door of the title?) “You can’t even believe, there’s so many bridges engulfed in flames behind me,” Gibbard sings, shooting his voice skyward again.

If freedom is the theme, it’s punctuated by the last track, a solo demo of “Talking Bird,” performed by Gibbard on a ukulele. On Stairs, this was one of the most normal songs, saved by its glorious lyrics – the talking bird of the title is kept in an open cage, but caged in other ways. The sadness in the song is truly captured in this version. Like the rest of The Open Door, it’s not essential, but it is a good listen, and the EP as a whole won’t make you feel like you wasted 17 minutes.

Speaking of wasting my time, I didn’t even bother to review the latest Joy Electric album, My Grandfather the Cubist, because it failed on so many levels. Ronnie Martin’s pet project – he records sparking pop songs using nothing but analog synthesizers – has been on a roll lately, with a strong series of albums, but he ground that to a halt with Cubist. The songs were all mid-tempo crawls, the melodies were slight, and the vocals poor. I was unhappy, but I knew I wouldn’t stay that way for long – Martin’s too good of an artist to let one slip-up stop him.

The new Joy Electric EP is entitled Curiosities and Such, which might lead you to expect b-sides and rarities. But no! These six tracks are all new, and taken as a 19-minute whole, the EP blows Cubist out of the water. There are three new songs, two new instrumentals, and a wordless take on the title track, and the result is a varied and engaging listen.

The big winner here is “Which Witch,” a classic Joy E number. It’s as minimal as Cubist, but Martin remembered to write hooks this time – the little mid-chorus synth figure is just sweet. The other two songs are terrific as well, with special mention to “Let Us Speak No More, Let Us Speak Light,” with its throbbing bass line and zippy vocal melody. Speaking of the vocals, Martin has found his voice again – he’s always better when he double- and triple-tracks. He’s not a bad singer, but his thin voice needs some reinforcement now and again.

That leaves three minutes of wordless ambient stuff, all of it beautiful, particularly “Cluster of Bare Trees.” The EP is capped off with “Misuses, Atrocities,” the aforementioned instrumental version of “Curiosities and Such,” and for a process junkie like me, hearing the structures Martin builds around his melodies is enlightening. Of the six, though, this one has the least replay value, and the disc would have been fine without it.

Let’s hope this EP signals a rekindled creative fire for Ronnie Martin, because I hope to keep collecting Joy E discs for another few decades at least. Martin is one of the most idiosyncratic musicians I know, but once he sucks you into his little world, you won’t want to leave. Curiosities and Such, despite its title, is a pretty good starting point, if you want to dip your toe into these waters. Pick it up here.

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And now, an EP version of Stuff I Missed.

I can’t imagine what Glen Phillips could do to lose me as a fan, but he might be on the verge of losing me as a customer. The former Toad the Wet Sprocket singer has a host of new projects up at his website, from bands with interesting names like Works Progress Administration and Remote Tree Children. But they’re all download-only at the moment, and I like stuff I can hold in my hand. I’m still not quite on board with paying for music without context.

Like many artists, Phillips has struck out on his own, without a label, so it’s kind of miraculous that he releases any physical product at all. I rejoiced, then, to find that he’d put out a six-song EP last year called Secrets of the New Explorers. I missed this for a simple reason – I have a million different artists to keep track of, and I rely on news aggregate sites to do much of the heavy lifting for me. An independent songwriter like Phillips just ain’t gonna get the headlines, and I plain forgot to check his site for much of last year.

That kind of sums up my thoughts on his music, too. I love Phillips’ songs while they’re playing, but don’t remember to think about him when they’re not. Which is a shame, because he’s a gifted writer with a strong voice, and he tries new things all the time – witness his unironic cover of Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug” on his last full-length, 2006’s Mr. Lemons. And Secrets of the New Explorers is yet another experiment – six songs about space travel, with textures unlike any Phillips has used before.

Phillips has a reputation as an earthy performer, so a song cycle about space capsules in orbit is unexpected, to say the least. But he makes it work, incorporating some “Space Oddity” influences on “Return to Me,” and some very cool keyboard and percussion on “They’ll Find Me.” These are songs about science fiction, sure, but they’re also about isolation and loneliness, and their emotional heart beats true.

“Space Elevator” is the only one I’d call a rock song – the rest are dreamy acoustic folk-pop, the kind Phillips does so well. Perhaps the biggest surprise is “The Spirit of Shackleton,” all about the titular rocket ship on the CD’s sleeve: “I’m not coming back from here, I’ve been too far, I’m cold but I’m not scared in the Spirit of Shackleton…” The song’s super-cool electronic drums and keyboard doodles were performed by Phillips, and they sound so good decorating his simple little song that I hope he keeps traveling down this path. The EP ends with the brief and haunting “A Dream,” just voice and guitar, and it’s lovely.

I do hope Phillips releases more music in a physical format – without the artwork that accompanies this EP, some of the imagery in the lyrics just wouldn’t make a lot of sense. It’s all about context for me, and as much as I like what I’ve heard from Phillips’ new projects, I want to hold them in my hand. Discovering Secrets of the New Explorers months after it was released was like finding a present still under the Christmas tree days later, and I’m glad I can add this to my Glen Phillips collection. I’m sorry I missed it on the first go-round, but I’ll remember to check in with Phillips more often now so it doesn’t happen again.

Next week, I was going to talk about some fascinatingly gimmicky new releases, but one of them was delayed, so that will have to wait. Instead, expect reviews of Conor Oberst, Great Northern and that Jane’s Addiction box set. Congrats again to Mike and Kate, and enjoy that honeymoon.

See you in line Tuesday morning.