An Extended Trial Balloon
The extended play format, since its modern inception in 1952, is unique in that it is not a single that highlights a particular track. It is meant to be a unified statement that’s too short to be an actual album, but one that goes beyond having, in the traditional sense, one song as a highlight on Side A followed by a throwaway on its flip side. Ideally, the average EP clocks in somewhere around 25 minutes in length and is about four or five songs long. Naturally, what constitutes an extended play, or EP, has come under the microscope in recent years with some EPs being the length of an actual album or beyond. (One of the main offenders in this case would be Sufjan Stevens’ recent All Delighted People EP, which actually runs about an hour in digital format.)
However, the EP has a particular utility for emerging bands, who can slash their recording budget in half by delivering a record with only four or five songs instead of the traditional 10 or 12. (Granted, the costs of pressing discs and then distributing them are still a bit of a hurdle, though one that’s being diminished in the age of the digital download.) Plus, if you’re a band without a lot of material, the EP allows you to quickly get product out the door. The EP also allows bands to try on a bunch of different coats and hats stylistically, and determine, from music reviewers’ and buyers’ reactions, what sticks and what doesn’t.
That, it would turn out, is precisely the function of Empress Hotel’s self-titled debut EP. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge of slightly differing musical styles spread across five songs that seems to solely exist for the band to get their bearings down and figure out what elements they might choose to pursue when it comes to delivering an actual full-length record. In that way, you can consider the Empress Hotel EP to be a bit of a trial balloon to tease out of listeners’ favored reactions as a kind of litmus test. Ergo, any criticism of the EP—by anyone really—can be basically construed as constructive criticism that will go towards building a grand hotel of sound out of sonic bricks and mortar.
The six-piece band, which I’m astonished to learn is from New Orleans, which would indicate there’s still a lively independent rock music scene there some five years after Hurricane Katrina leveled much of that city, is mainly comprised of brothers Ryan and Eric Rogers on guitar and drums, and Micah McKee on lead vocals and guitar. As noted above, this is a group that’s still trying out new ideas and fumbling towards an identity, which is evident even on their EP’s lead-off song, “Bells Ring”, which has that hazy ‘60s surf rock sound with jittery guitars that you’ve heard in recent work by the Walkmen, Tennis, and Real Estate. The only real difference is that there’s some high-pitched organ work contributed by keyboard player Julie Williams, but otherwise, Empress Hotel is only mirroring here what’s cool in hipster circles. The cut takes its time in working up a beat into lather, as you have to wait a full minute and 10 seconds before Leo DeJesus’s drums kick into high gear.
“Bells Ring” is a catchy summery song, but it really doesn’t sound all that distinguished from anything else you’ve heard elsewhere lately, ending in a chorus of “bah dah’s” after sputtering to a halt and running out of fumes. Follow-up “Mach Bach” only furthers the tenuous connection to the aforementioned independent rock bands of today, and caterwauls all over the place, thanks in part to some polyrhythmic skin pounding, directionless organ, and verses and choruses that don’t have a sense of real cohesion. That said, the song still comes out of the wringer being somewhat easy on the ears, the kind of thing you might listen to while cruising around in your muscle car—which is not unintentional.
McKee has a few thoughts about life on the road on these two opening tracks: “Bells Ring” opens with the gibberish “Driving up and down the Sunset Motorway/Spilling over/It’ll only set you up/It’ll only set you up/For the fall/When it’s over”. That’s followed one song later with “Slap me in the back seat/Gonna drive around this town/We’ll find the key/We’ll turn the lock/We’ll find it somehow”. The infatuation with car songs could very well make Empress Hotel the Jan and Dean of the Deep South.
However, it’s after these two songs zip by that things get a bit more interesting. The third track of this five-song EP is actually called “Empress Hotel”, which might just be the first time a band has named a song, an album and themselves after the same thing since the group, album and song Living in a Box did the one-hit wonder thing in the late ‘80s. The tune has a wonderful slinky feeling to it, with gorgeous female “ohs!” punctuating it, and you can hear an infatuation with Prince. It all leads to a rousing streamlined, aerodynamic chorus, and, overall, the song has the weight of a track ripped right out of ‘70s AM radio with its Rhodes piano. It’s a total 180 shift in style, and, you know what? It works. It has a particular bounce to it, and shows a side of the band going beyond what’s de rigueur amongst hipsters.
The moody ballad “Search Lights” continues the band’s flirtation with a soulful vibe, with the debonair flair of a late ‘70s Roxy Music song. It also boasts interesting interplay between a ragged electric guitar trading off an acoustic guitar line in an all too truncated solo. However, the song’s real deficiency is that it literally stops on a dime, as though it were eyeing the clock, noting that it’s getting a little close to the commercially unfriendly five-minute mark. It also continues an infatuation with vehicles with the line “Got a hole in my heart so large/With a right-sized car/You can drive right through”. If anything, Empress Hotel is constant in the imagery department.
The final cut, “Here Comes the New Challenger”, offers yet another color to the band’s palette, being that it is a keyboard-driven piece of pseudo-Electronica pop propped up with a programmed drum beat. It’s a fun song, one that you might find yourself wanting to sing along with. Despite its gurgling synthetic underpinning, it’s another soulful track that gives McKee a chance to shine with his gravelly pipes. Again, it’s a track that reaches back into the ‘70s, and does so with a keen appreciation of what made the disposable bubblegum pop of that decade so delectable.
So, the final tally of the Empress Hotel EP is that you get two introductory cuts that sound remarkably contemporary even in their Velvet Underground meets surf guitar rock chime, possibly to appease the casual indie rock fanatic of today. Then, you get a slice of faux-funk followed by a vibe-heavy ‘70s soul track, all ending with a pure pop rave up. That’s a lot of different styles for one band to take on, and doing so causes this EP to almost buckle under its own weight. However, the Empress Hotel EP is not meant to be a cohesive artistic statement, even in the constraints of the EP format. It’s merely a smorgasbord of different ideas presented to an audience in an effort to prove their popularity, and which ideas work best.
My favorite tracks are the third and fourth ones, as they seem to be the most fully formed and realized songs on the extended play, and the final song isn’t all that half-bad either. Overall, this is an inconsistent but fairly engaging EP, one that shows a band trying out a bunch of different things, and showing a need to, perhaps, refine their lyrics a little bit more. But I’m just one voice in a maelstrom of voices that this EP is catering to. I would encourage any fans of the band to show up at their concerts, maybe talk to Empress Hotel after the show, and tell them what you like. That is, in essence, what this recorded statement is all about. It’s a discussion point, a means for an emerging band struggling with its sound and direction to engage people and gather that important element that they need to make things finally congeal. And that would be feedback, something that this EP proves Empress Hotel needs to hear.