I admire an artist or band with a gift for a well-constructed EP. Working with a smaller array of songs means that everything has to be just that much better: higher quality songwriting; production that emphasizes strengths without polishing away raw beauty; and a keen sense of songs that belong together.
As you prepare to spend your holiday cash and gift cards, might we suggest 5 EPs that — simply put — nailed it?
OTM’s Essential EPs of 2014
5. The Say MAX EP – MAX
Max Schneider (known in the music industry as MAX) is a triple-threat with seemingly boundless energy and genuine heart. Getting his start on Broadway, he’s quickly transitioned into acting and music as parallel careers. He first caught my attention with his song “Mug Shot”, featured prominently in the Veronica Mars movie, and with the Say MAX EP, he’s maintained a firm grip.
With a sound that blends pop with elements of hip hop, jazz and soul, MAX captivates from the opening notes of “Streets Of Gold”. It’s clear from his lyrics that MAX is a dreamer, an optimist who believes in the power of love and perhaps a dash of good fortune. While “Streets Of Gold” captures the innocence of love, “Puppeteer” grinds to the floor with a tribal sway that pursues him until he submits to a passion that won’t be denied. In contrast, ballad “Darling” allows his voice to take centre stage, accompanied by a simple piano melody. It’s “Mug Shot”, however, that really exemplifies all he’s capable of: with a hook-heavy groove that evokes James Brown’s intense vocals and the R&B-pop fusion mastered by Justin Timberlake, you can’t help but sing along with a grin.
Really, that’s what makes this EP so damn special: the joie de vivre that seeps from MAX is contagious. It’s a ray of sunshine in the daily grind. Mark my words: MAX is one to watch.
4. EP2 – The Honeyrunners
Toronto band The Honeyrunners, like MAX, favour the sweet soul of the days of Motown as a heavy influence on their sound. However, they prefer to fuse it with rock, blending the pipes of Dan Dwoskin with tight bass lines and punchy percussion. Their last EP featured the stellar track “Jet Set” (which we ranked as one of 2013’s Best Songs), but on EP 2, the band feels like they’ve truly hit their stride. Fusing lyrics born of dreamy optimism nestled alongside feisty realism with a sound that feels timeless, they’ve crafted a 5-track collection that beckons repeat listening.
One of the contributing factors, in my opinions, is a ‘live off the floor’ approach to the recording session. Having seen the band live, I can attest to their songs having a certain emotionality live that was at times not as apparent on their first release. On this collection, their passion comes through. Lead-off tune “Under Control” carries a Chicago blues vibe reminiscent of Buddy Guy’s melodies beneath its surface. Defiant and unwavering in the face of adversity, it packs the swagger of a fighter two rounds down and entering the third, refusing to relent. “Bones” and “Hold Me” keep it mellower, but hardly boring; each in turn delves into their familiar storytelling style, connecting with listeners via the shared human experiences of love, loneliness and the inherent need for companionship. “River Song” really puts the band’s keen ear for harmony into play, standing out with its round robin vocals that soar and resonate as deeply as its message of self-acceptance and growth.
Brimming with confidence, The Honeyrunners have hit the mark with this quintet of sweet melodies.
3. For Your Bloodshot Eyes – July Talk
Opener “Gentleman” broods in a dysfunctional relationship waltz, depicting domestic abuse in powerful imagery that’s made all the more effective via the juxtaposition of Leah Fay’s delicate whisper of a soprano and Peter Dreimanis’ gritty, predatory voice. The crescendo swell only adds to the psychological devastation playing out. In contrast, “Blood + Honey” takes on the pitfalls and price of fame, shirking a life of coasting on notoriety and the mainstream flavour of the week: “Whose stolen skin do you fit into?… You got Friday night to look forward to, blacking out in expensive shoes.” Closer “Uninvited” perhaps best captures the live energy of the band: call and response, frantic yet never unfocused, it’s a pedal-mashed-to-the-floor rocker that begs for wild dancing on public transportation.
Stylistically, July Talk is a study in contrasts, in daring to rock harder, push farther and cast aside all notions of limitation. For Your Bloodshot Eyes is a clever trio that captures all the band is capable of.
2. Augusta – Scott Helman
I first heard Scott Helman opening up for Matthew Good at Massey Hall, which should give you an idea of how sure Warner Music is of their recent signing. By the end of his set, I was a believer as well. Barely of legal age, Helman (who cites the likes of Leonard Cohen and Pink Floyd as having informed his approach to music) sounds far wiser than his years. With a voice rooted in soul, he doesn’t hesitate to break out into a folkier talk-singing as the song calls for it.
Augusta serves as an introduction to the diversity of Helman’s sound, and while there’s a clear production focus on a more pop-laden sound (think Jason Mraz), the folk blues layered beneath is what drives the EP. Opener “Bungalow” is currently in radio rotation and with little wonder: it’s snappy pop-folk, with a catchy chorus that sticks in the brain. Dig deeper into the verses, and the song is reflective and almost desperate in its affection. Contrast this with “Cry Cry Cry”, the song that best captures Helman’s live sound (bonus live track aside). A definite highlight of the collection, there’s a classic feel reminiscent of the 60s in its plaintive vocals and acoustic vibe — until distortion kicks in at the bridge, as jarring as that moment where we recognize a broken relationship is precisely that. Another standout: “Tikka” with its brimming hope and hesitation, paired with a stream-of-consciousness delivery of its verses and spirited percussion.
A startling debut, Augusta is the promise of great things to come.
1. Kid – Animal Talk
Released in April of this year, I still can’t stop spinning at least one track from Kid daily, making it the worthy winner of the EP crown.
On their sophomore EP, Animal Talk have truly hit their stride, carving out a sound that defies neat little genre boxes. For a child of the late 70’s or early 80’s, Kid is a nostalgic whirlwind, tapping into elements of disco, groove rock, pop and even a dash of Motown sensibility. From the moment opener “Tie Me Up” revs up and ignites the senses, the band’s growth is readily apparent: guitar riffs are tight and pop out with playful emphasis; the synthpop hovering around the edges on their previous outing is allowed free reign to great success; and percussive punches and sly bass lines lure the feet into endless motion.
The contrast in style between tracks serves to further create the impression of a life lived in song, each track a new chapter to devour. Where “Mama Was A Teenage Rocker” captures the struggle to reconcile the image of our parents with their own youth — and conversely, the thought that we, too, must grow older — through a driving rock number, “World’s On Fire” and “Color Wheel” tap heavily into funk and soul, capturing the mesmerizing power of young love (and, perhaps, psychedelics, if such was your teenage poison). It’s to his credit that vocalist Steven Kilgore can shift so easily between the nuances of each genre, a chameleon with serious charisma, matched perhaps only by the likes of Daft Punk and Jamiroquai.
There’s a maturity to Kid, though; don’t mistake this quintet of tunes for something simple or juvenile. Love, lust and identity lurk beneath the clever wordplay of Animal Talk’s lyrics. It’s what elevates their music to something beyond merely danceable. Self-doubt and the uncertainty of navigating adulthood collide with an exuberance of youth in juxtaposition — almost a challenge to the listener to keep the child inside us alive and grooving.