[13 December 2004]
The stopgap EP, with the possible exception of the greatest hits re-recorded album, may be the least respected release in a band’s catalogue. Bands release stopgap EPs in-between proper releases, usually as a dumping ground for leftovers, covers, and remixes, in order to give the public the semblance of a continuing career. This is not to suggest that bands don’t release EP’s as valid works in their own right, but these are typically entities separate from stopgap EP’s, which are more mini-compilations of unreleased material than a coherent artistic statement. They are, in some respects, extended singles that consist of nothing but b-sides.
However, the continuing persistence of the stopgap EP format suggests that the medium does have its own unique purpose in the musical world, and perhaps one that goes far beyond the mere economic reasons typically used to excuse their existence. Fields in Glass, which psychedelic popsters the High Dials have released following their lukewarmly acclaimed A New Devotion, is almost the Platonic ideal of a stopgap EP, and thus provides the perfect opportunity to dissect this misunderstood format and perhaps take a few guesses at its importance.
Fields in Glass opens with the title track, which, in true stopgap EP fashion, is a track from their preceding album. It is not really the designated “hit” from the album, but rather a great “album track”—as the Billboard charts would have it—that is rescued from oblivion by prominent placement on the follow-up EP. This leads to the chance for a “do-over” attempt at a “hit” (or whatever passes for a hit in the indie music scene). The High Dials have emphasized this by presenting the swirling Revolver pastiche of “Fields in Glass” in a tighter “radio mix”, courtesy of Mike Musmanno.
Next are the originals, the true enticements for fans of the first album looking for more of the same Thankfully, the High Dials do not make the mistake of using obviously inferior album outtakes and discarded songs to comprise the meat of their EP. “City Rivers” and “The House Where Trouble Sleeps” are top notch songs, and the expanded sound palette (particularly the warm organs and acoustic guitars of “The House Where Trouble Sleeps”) proves that the High Dials have their sights set higher than revamping the stylistic tricks of “And Your Bird Can Sing” or “She Said She Said”.
The sitar-and-tabla filled instrumental “Things Are Getting Better” might be the most controversial selection on Fields in Glass. “Things Are Getting Better” comes directly from A New Devotion, in this exact version, which would put off the fans who have already bought that album. Stopgap EP’s, however, are not just for the built-in audience for a band, they are also a tool for drawing new listeners. By including “Things Are Getting Better”, an irresistibly campy delight, Fields in Glass could easily persuade a new listener to explore the band’s back catalogue.
In fact, the true weak spot on this—and most stopgap EPs—are the remixes. Remixes, although often interesting one-time novelties, often appear on these EP’s as filler disguised as new material. The remixes of “Fields in Glass” do not reinterpret the song in any remarkable ways. The “club mix” basically consists of dulling repetition, and the band’s own remix of the song is useless in theory and in fact. The point of a remix, if it is not merely padding, should be to let another vision reinterpret one’s own work. When the band members themselves remix their own work, it seems to me that the results can never be a true re-imagining. The clicks and clangs the High Dials add to “Fields in Glass” do little to prove my theory wrong. (The EP ends with a bonus track, a remix of “Diamonds in the Dark”, which is as marginal as its appearance within this set of parentheses suggests.)
If Fields in Glass is the epitome of the stopgap EP, despite its inexplicable failure to include a live track, cover, or live cover, what does it say about the purpose of the format? Obviously, Fields in Glass exists to keep an artist on the periphery of the media spotlight until their next album, as well as getting some easy money from their fanbase (large or small) with little effort. However, it also allows the band to draw new fans, experiment with new sounds and ideas, and even just plain have a little fun without consequences. Certainly, the remixes on Fields in Glass may be inconsequential, but the fact that the band can pursue such seemingly inconsequential routes may be reason enough for the existence of a stopgap EP. Freed from the pressures of a full-length album, bands like the High Dials can explore different paths without pressure. If they fail, hey, it was only a stopgap EP.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/highdials-fields/