Heartbeeps, their latest EP, races through ten tracks in 16 minutes. Four of these songs break the two-minute mark. This is incredible considering that their debut album, Terrorbird, had 33 tracks in 42 minutes and only had five songs longer than two minutes. The Mae Shi may be the perfect band for a generation weaned on audio clips. Want to hear this song? You just did! If only rock criticism could be so succinct.
Bands have written short songs ever since they (a) heard the Ramones, (b) started running out of ideas, (c) discovered that more songs meant more money in publishing, or (d) played so intensely that longer songs would kill them. Napalm Death took the latter approach, taking the short song to its logical limit with the one-second-long “You Suffer”. Famous for their incendiary 15-minute live sets, the Mae Shi take a similar approach, but with pop and electronic music elements.
After the sprawling Terrorbird, Heartbeeps focuses on pop songs—or fragments of them, anyways. “Born for a Short Time” is angular, propulsive post-punk that builds towards a thrilling climax… and segues into the next song. “Crimes of Infancy” begins with a jerky, stop-time intro, then dispenses with body of song entirely, exploding straight into its closing rideout. Heavy breathing and beeping noises follow, perhaps the sound of the heart attack the listener (or band) just had.
Thing really gel in “Eat the Prize”, which, at 3:16, is an epic for the Mae Shi. After forty seconds of swinging, catchy garage rock, the song drops into a slow electro interlude; a minute and a half later, the garage rock reignites and somehow morphs into Rolling Stones-esque harmonies. The changes are abrupt, but they work, almost recalling the ABA structure of classical music symphonies.
At times, the brevity verges on self-sabotage. “Spoils of Injury” is shiny indie-electro that could give The Postal Service a run for their money. But it lasts one verse (and 42 seconds) before heading into the next song. One wants to shake the band and say, “You were two minutes shy of a massive pop hit!” As They Might Be Giants have amply showed, though, there’s a certain charm to the micro-song, and there’s no better way to fill the end of a mixtape.
Heartbeeps itself is like a mixtape in that it has almost nothing but hooks (insert “more hooks than” metaphor here—fishing convention, butcher shop, pirate hospital, etc.). On their first tour, the Mae Shi asked fans to trade mixtapes for copies of their first EP. From these tapes, the band made the ultimate mix CD, a 70-minute opus of snippets from 1,200 songs, which the band now trades for new mixtapes. No doubt this “nothing but the essence” mentality has rubbed off on the band’s own songs.
Post-Mae Shi, even three-minute pop songs begin to sound long. Do we ever need to hear more than one verse by 50 Cent? In a world of movie jump cuts and Internet surfing, it’s a wonder that the three-minute pop song has remained intact. The Mae Shi are more than capable of writing three-minute hits, but let’s hope they never take Ritalin. As the human attention span dwindles, the Mae Shi’s one-minute anthems may well become the pop hits of tomorrow.