I’ve always been a champion of the EP. This shorter, more concise format lends itself more focused direction in songwriting, themes and style. From Oingo Boingo’s now rare debut EP to Iron & Wine’s Woman King and beyond, the EP, though often overlooked, has been easily the most digestible form of commercial music, more satisfying than a single, and less tedious and grandiose as an album. I guess Joseph Arthur feels the same way. The problem is, I think he somewhat missed the point as he hasn’t just released something as focused as an EP, he’s released four EPs within four months, all leading up to a full album in August. To quote Velma, “jinkies!” Spread among four releases are enough songs to be two tracks shy of the length of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, and that should tell you something, unless you’re one of those die-hard Mellon Collie fans.
The most unfortunate aspect of this bout of pop excess is that this will be the focus of most reviews. Yes, I am fulfilling my own prophecy, but I sincerely doubt that most reviews will even attempt to escape the pull to write about prolificacy versus substance. And yet, these discs do have some substance, though hidden amongst the bracken of overgrowth. Sadly, for Arthur, the good songs will generally become lost in the midst of comparisons to Prince, Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst or Robert Pollard in relation to self-censorship and harried output. Another, and most likely more important, aspect to this string of EP releases is that your average music consumer is probably more likely to buy a double album like Mellon Collie on one trip rather than a few EPs on multiple trips, all of which would end up costing more than said double album. Though, with digital downloading, at least the effort of the journey is taken out of the equation.
Arthur has certainly become relatively well known in comparison to your average indie troubadour. In a nutshell: discovered by Peter Gabriel; signed to RealWorld; revered, if not by critics some of the time, then definitely by other artists; his song “In the Sun” covered by Michael Stipe and Chris Martin for a Hurricane Katrina benefit EP; prolific visual artist in addition to music. I first heard Arthur long after he started his career, in covering the Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” I have heard a lot of bad covers of Smiths songs, and this was definitely NOT one of them. I was nothing if not intrigued.
To Arthur’s credit, though the EPs are somewhat glutting the market, each release is an entity unto itself, with its own thematic identity. Could We Survive and Crazy Rain are the first two of the planned four EPs, with the first more rooted in singer / songwriter folkiness and the latter a bit more on the pop / funk / soul side. On the first, “Rages of Babylon” is a standout track, with Arthur sounding a bit like Richard Ashcroft singing a Dylanesque war protest tune. “Walk Away” and “King of the Pavement” are other tracks to heed, with all the requisite elements of captivating Britpop ballad. Could We Survive is a perfect little EP for those quiet Sunday mornings at home, curling up with a cup of coffee and reading the paper.
Crazy Rain is, in my opinion, the better of the two, though completely different in sound and scope. Vocals are fuzzed out and overdubbed while the instruments are plugged in and distorted with studio effects. Though Greg Dulli is a guest on second track “Nothin 2 Hide,” it is the first track, “Killer’s Knife” that sounds more like an Afghan Whigs / Twilight Singers / Gutter Twins gothic folk jam. “I Wanna Get You Alone” is a song that some might dismiss as repetitive, but I find it to be as engaging as songs from Depeche Mode’s similar sounding Music for the Masses and Violaor era. It shares qualities with their update of “Route 66” or “Personal Jesus.” And yet, as the longest EP, Crazy Rain has as many missteps as standout tracks, including the torturous and uncomfortable “Radio Euphoria” as well as the seemingly interminable drone of “Dream of the Eternal Life.” “I Come Down” finds Arthur somewhat out of his element with an industrial edge that makes him seem more like a parody of Trent Reznor than Reznor himself. Plus, it’s one hubcap analogy shy of aping a T. Rex cut.
It strikes me, upon listening to Arthur’s tunes, that if each song were placed in some other context, either listened to in isolation, put into a mix as on the radio or a compilation CD, or played randomly for a friend, that most people might prick up their ears to ask who was playing. However, with this string of EPs, though each one thematically varied, listeners are most likely to suffer from Joseph Arthur overload rather than be able to pick out particular gems to savor. My advice to any non-Arthur fans, or just casual listeners is to sprinkle the tracks into playlists or just listen to them among other shuffled tunes for optimum enjoyment. After all, isn’t that what this generation is all about anyway?
Could We Survive:
Richard Ashcroft- Keys to the World
Ian McCulloch- Candleland
Howie Day- Australia
Depeche Mode- Behind the Wheel Single / EP
Sigue Sigue Sputnik- Flaunt It
My Morning Jacket- Evil Urges