Recently, I handed a friend and fellow music enthusiast a copy of the debut EP by Luscious Jackson, In Search of Manny. “It’s not perfect,” I told him, “but it’s pretty great and the band never lived up to the promise of it.” My friend replied, somewhat sarcastically, “I like how you consider the EP to be a promise.” I left it at that, but the exchange got me thinking about the EP and what it can mean.
Between the single and the full-length, the EP stands on a bit of hallowed ground. By size alone, it offers more than the single, and if we’re being honest, chances are it offers more anyway. There are far too many singles that give the world two songs, one good and one mediocre. On the other end of the spectrum, the full-length comes with the baggage of its own self. It’s there to be studied, judged, rallied for and against, and possibly reevaluated. An EP, though, is like the invitation to a potentially great party. The gathering hasn’t happened just yet, but you know it’s coming and you know you’re going.
More than anything else, a good EP generates excitement. It allows the artist to stretch a bit while considering the future. Debut EPs are a solid introduction to a possible new favorite band (Helium, the Strokes), while this particular format in a mid-career release may attempt to stake a claim to a new direction (Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, the National). It comes across as a statement of purpose: these songs can’t wait for the full-length; they need to be heard now, and then I/we need to get back to work.
Desolation Town by the Secret History is that sort of an EP. It’s its own entity, beginning to end, while begging the wish fulfillment of the next, longer release. The sound is ’80s pop with hints of British ’90s alternative guitar rock. It’s soulful without capitalizing on the current retro fashion. Songwriter and co-singer Michael Grace sounds like a mix of Stuart Murdoch and Neil Tennant. Main vocalist Lisa Ronson sings with a confidence that doesn’t allow despair to hide. The rest of the band — Darren Amadio (guitar, vocals), Kurt Brondo (keyboards), Todd Karasik (drums), Gil Abad (bass), Erin Dermody (harmony) — each add a clear piece to the whole. Their parts are skillfully played, weaving in and out in a way that makes it clear that many bands don’t really know how to do anything except make some noise. One imagines that if Dusty Springfield were alive and young today (and a fan of Bikini Kill and glam rock), she may have released something just like Desolation Town.
At times, the recording sounds disparate, as if the band members weren’t in the studio together. There’s a slightly chilly quality to the proceedings. It’s hard to love at first. But repeated listens open it up and the cool details sink in: a surf/dirge intro to “Our Lady of Pompeii” gives way to bouncy keyboards and gorgeous vocals; the way Lisa Ronson’s style conjures both Kim Wilde and Lush’s Miki Berenyi; the line, “Rock n’ roll means never having to say you’re sorry” on the great “Mark & John (Bring on the Glitter Kids)”.
The Secret History has made an EP that brings with it a promise. It showcases inventiveness, cool songwriting, interesting lyrics, and individual style. It adds another update to the pop genre, and pop certainly always loves another way to stay hip. When its six songs are over, you’ll definitely want more. Not because the EP is lacking in quality. It just isn’t enough.