Shamir and Bok Bok: The Value of EPs
Since the ‘60s, the album has been the gold standard in pop music. History suggests that the first “concept” albums, an honor usually awarded to the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ (1966) and the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967), were groundbreaking because they represented cohesive collections of songs that hung together.
This is simply false — many albums released before 1966 united around a theme or sound, even if they weren’t tagged as conceptual. Subsequent generations of musicians are judged as “serious” according to their ability to effectively create these works. But are albums really the right metric for a digital age?
Not only are downloading and streaming the dominant forms of listening, the major-label system that used to prop up the expensive business of expansive album creation is in shambles. Right on cue, 2014 has been full of strong shorter releases that threaten to upend the album’s dominance. These include 100s’ ‘Ivry,’ Marian Hill’s ‘Play,’ Courtney Barnett’s ‘The Double EP’ and Erik Hassle’s ‘Somebody Party.’ Now Bok Bok’s ‘Your Charizmatic Self’ and Shamir’s ‘Northtown’ should be added to the pool.
The album as we know it is a relic of a technology that was old before any of the above artists were born. The LP (long play), introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, was made of thinly grooved vinyl that rotated 33 1/3 times per minute. It allowed for more than 20 minutes of music per side — a significant upgrade over previous records that played at 78 rpm — and for many years, an album was simply the amount of music an artist could squeeze onto an LP. The rise of the compact disc and digital technology more or less nullified this constraint, but tradition has maintained the importance of the album.
Shorter musical releases today are usually referred to as EPs, named after RCA Victor’s 45 rpm competitor to the LP. EP stands for extended play, but originally the play was extended — to contain about 15 minutes of music — only with respect to previous 78 rpm records. Perhaps because EPs never became very popular, they have been released in a number of different formats over time. Now the term covers any release that’s smaller than an album.
With seven relatively short songs, Bok Bok’s ‘Your Charizmatic Self’ definitely qualifies as an EP. Bok Bok, who helps run the London record label Night Slugs, is probably best known for the two songs he produced last year on ‘Cut 4 Me,’ the well-regarded debut mixtape from the R&B singer Kelela. The producer uses the success of Kelela to hook listeners into his latest project: she appears on the first track, ‘Melba’s Call,’ which also happens to be the only song on the EP to have live vocals.
Bok-Bok recently told the Quietus that he loved Janet Jackson’s 1989 album ‘Rhythm Nation 1814,’ which is full of breakneck, cutting edge funk, and this influence shines through on ‘Melba’s Call.’ The song stops and starts and spurts with guitars and synth. At one point, Bok Bok cuts Kelela’s question short, so she sings, “why you acting so … ” — but we never hear what’s upsetting her, and remain enticed by the omission.
It’s smart production; it’s also a smart bait and switch — Bok Bok draws in the progressive R&B crowd with that initial siren call, and then drops a series of instrumentals. ‘Howard‘ involves more percussive sprays of synths and bass and drums, all coming in together as a unit, but here the noise is interspersed with silence, which acts to take the place of the vocals. ‘Funkiest (Be Yourself)’ has a James Brown-like title and a Prince-like beat. A low bass sound skitters across hissing high hats; the drum pattern keeps morphing so you can’t get a bead on it. ‘Da Foxtrot‘ is likely to confuse any foxtrotters in Bok Bok’s audience. The synths approximate sirens, and there’s a whistling sound that signals an impending riot.
Shamir, just 19 years old with his first EP under his belt, also uses a riotous burst of noise to destabilize a groove in his first track, ‘If It Wasn’t True,’ but his music is less herky-jerky — he’s interested in the steady pulse of dance music. His voice brings to mind the high androgyny of late ‘70s and early ‘80s disco stars (Sylvester or Shannon) as well as the sound of disco’s descendant, deep house. However, he’s careful to note in an email that he’s “not a dance artist,” he “just like[s] to use dance music as an aesthetic.”
‘Northtown’ is full of simple piano riffs — two or three notes, slammed with force — a firm kick drum that hits every beat and multi-tracked falsetto. The production is modern, but the sound exists right in that transition period from disco to house. Shamir dispenses with some dance music conventions, mainly long intros and gradual build; this is his debut, he needs to make an impression quickly. After a few bars of music set the tempo, he usually unleashes that falsetto.
He mostly sings about unease related to love. The first lines on the EP: “I’m sitting on the couch feeling alone / I don’t feel right, cause no one is home.” Later he sings, “Came without a warning, oh, your love was strong / Grabbed my neck and pulled it, kept dragging me along.” This could be a lusty line linking back to classic house music (a genre famous for its sexuality), or a comment on the madness of the hype machine faced by a young artist.
The last couple songs continue in this vein — as indicated by the titles, ‘I’ll Never be Able to Love’ and ‘Lived and Died Alone’ — but slow it down for a ballad treatment. The first has hints of Leona Lewis’ 2007 hit ‘Bleeding Love,’ bringing a thick, gospel-influenced backing track. The final tune faithfully covers the Canadian country singer Lindi Ortega, giving some weight to Shamir’s declaration that, “at the end of the day, I’m a singer-songwriter.”
Not only are Bok Bok and Shamir demonstrating that an EP can be more than just a few throwaway tracks between serious projects, they are using the advantages of the shorter format. One of these is that with an EP, an artist can waste less energy worrying about sequencing and ordering — as Shamir points out, “It’s fewer songs you have to work with to make a whole cohesive sound.” In his case, he doesn’t have to be concerned that the steady thump of the kick drum across three tracks is going to blur them together like it might across eight or 10 songs.
In addition, there’s no artificial pressure to come up with more tunes — EPs are better suited to actual bursts of creative activity (unless you are the kind of prolific writer who churns out 20 songs in a sitting). Bok Bok and Shamir didn’t have to force themselves to create filler. Traits that might become off-putting over the course of an entire album have less time to bother the listener on an EP. Maybe some people aren’t going to pick up an entire album of Bok Bok instrumentals, but seven songs is less of a commitment, so they’re willing to give it a try.
More importantly — and somewhat paradoxically — the EP’s shorter length allows an artist more freedom to experiment. Because these releases are undervalued relative to full albums, Bok Bok can play around with silence, and Shamir can throw an acoustic country cover in with his dance beats. If artists like Bok Bok and Shamir keep releasing quality EPs, they may finally end the format’s unequal and outdated treatment.