Physical media play an underappreciated role in how we make and perceive commercial music. The 45rpm single gave us the Yin/Yang of the A-side/B-side, in which one song aims to please while the other can play a little hard-to-get (“Hello Goodbye” and “I Am the Walrus,” for example – and which one do you like better now?) The LP gave us the related concept of “album tracks”: songs best appreciated in the context of the whole, rather than in isolation. The CD, with its 70+ minutes of canvas, invited artists to be eclectic and inclusive, often to a fault.
In popular music today, the media issue is almost moot. Songs may ship in clusters reminiscent of the album, but in use, they are now just so much digital loose change rattling around in your iPocket. We are now empowered to build and maintain our own playlists, our own Hit Parades of musical yes-men. Increasingly, we count on smart algorithms to track our patterns, profile our preferences and deejay for us: Affinitar or iYou or whatever. I’ll never understand what kind of solipsist/narcissist wants to be fed a predictive model of himself all day. Can we start to view art again as something with the capacity to change or even o’erthrow the self, not simply to affirm it and brand it? Goodness.
But to what remains of the audience formerly known as “the record-buying public,” the EP (extended play) occupies a unique space: something more than a single, something less than full-length. Part of its traditional function is introductory and deferential: “I am new here and don’t want to impose too much on your valuable time.” But the EP’s appeal and aesthetic punch lie in its acute focus: It lends itself to coherent, single-effect artistic statements.
On its eponymous debut EP, Rosendale’s Living with Elephants very much carries off a sustained single mood. Its five songs hint at a full thematic circle of sorts, opening and closing with meditative, mirroring songs on themes of dreaming and remembering – in fact, images of memory and loss recur so frequently in these songs that I wonder if “living with memory” is what they meant by Living with Elephants.
Producer Dean Jones positions singer/songwriter/keyboardist Amy Poux at the center of the mixes: her voice both hushed and huge, and her simple-but-elegant keyboard parts allowed plenty of clearance in the arrangements. The supporting players perform with great restraint and with an intentionally limited soundset: dry percussion and understated bass parts anchoring the gauzy, mostly electronic atmospherics.
But, typical of a Dean Jones production, devilish touches abound on the periphery: a synthetic talking-drum sound that speaks up in several songs; a warbling, filtered electro beat that kicks off “Looking Glass,” the EP’s jauntiest moment; and the lovely Minimalist synth-and-cello arrangement that rises to take over the outro of the opening track “Hindsight.” These sonic interlopers provide just enough tension and surprise to tease Poux’s intimate pop songs without undermining them.
The directness of Poux’s lyrics and melodies sometimes belies their considerable craftiness, which is so often the case in the best so-called confessional songwriting. The songs are efficient, with the longest clocking in at 3:07, and modest in their delivery (while she is a gifted singer and melodist, Poux is not prone to “going-to-church” histrionics). As a listener, you may feel like a privileged confidante; but don’t assume for a moment that that is an easy feel to achieve. It is the sum effect of a fine set of interlocking songs and some deeply sympathetic production and performances.
Living with Elephants will be having a CD release party at the Lounge at Backstage Studio Productions (BSP) in Kingston this Saturday, July 14. The doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $10. The Lounge at BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. For more event information, visit www.bsplounge.com. For more on the band, visit www.livingwithelephants.net.