Keeping Track: 20 Essential Emo EPs, Part 1
by Chad Jewett
1.) Rites of Spring – All Through A Life (1987)
Released after the seminal D.C. emo originators had already broken up, All Through A Life was Rites of Spring’s final release, a four song EP soon to be absorbed into the monumental, self-titled discography LP, End on End, where most people encounter the tracks nowadays. Yet All Through A Life rewards time spent with its short but portentous run-time in its own right. More expansive and spacious than much of the more resolutely hardcore material that defined 1985’s Rites of Spring, All Through A Life is both a compelling ten minutes of punk rock ingenuity and something of a miniature missing link between the brusque, aggressive aesthetic of the pre-Revolution Summer mid-Atlantic and the more measured, impressionistic material that would come from both the post-Rites Fugazi and the larger groundswell of emo bands that would come to discover Rites of Spring. Indeed, it is on songs like the wiry, mood-rich “Patience” that one can first begin to trace Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate.
2.) Jawbreaker – Chesterfield King (1992)
Like the quartet of songs from All Through A Life, the tracks from Chesterfield King, an EP released in conjunction with Jawbreaker’s 1992 breakthrough, Bivouac, are more frequently heard on expanded versions of that LP (though a vinyl pressing of Chesterfield King is still widely available). This is made even more confusing by the fact that, rather than just tack the songs at the end of Bivuoac, after the album’s original nine-song tracklist, expanded CD versions actually pushed the album-closing title track to the end, after the bonus tracks and placed “Face Down” in the middle of the album. Confused? Who could blame you? But sequencing confusions aside, the four songs bundled with “Chesterfield King” are a fascinating, expanded look at the band’s creative center of gravity during a two year period that would yield two of emo’s finest albums.
3.) The Promise Ring – Electric Pink (2000)
Electric Pink showed up almost immediately after The Promise Ring’s third album, Very Emergency, and for the most part, it shows. Made up of the same muscular power-pop that defined songs like “Happiness Is All The Rage,” Electric Pink is perhaps the most economically melodic, extroverted release of the Milwaukee quartet’s short run, its compact Technicolor thrills underlined by its ultra-minimalist, super-bright pink cover. Yet on the Beatlesque, alt-country informed “American Girl (V. 01)” the band also began to forecast the twilit spaciousness of The Promise Ring’s final album, Wood/Water, coincidentally making Electric Pink feel like a time-lapse snapshot of The Promise Ring’s entire career, from the sugar-high melodic punk of the band’s salad days (“Make Me A Mixtape”) to the autumnal weariness of their swan song.
4.) Braid – I’m Afraid of Everything (1996)
Released in anticipation of the band’s sorely underrated sophomore LP, The Age of Octeen, the three-song I’m Afraid of Everything EP found Braid embracing the sense of mood, balance, and anticipation that would make the ensuing full-length a definitive work of 90s Midwestern emo. The EP’s title track is a nervy mix of quiet passages and sudden eruptions, while “Now I’m Exhausted” is a broad, measured slow-burn, built around an expressive bass-line from Todd Bell and one of Bob Nanna’s better vocal performances, eschewing the sort of mood-swings that show up on “Radish White Icicle” for something more atmospheric (and in that way actually anticipating the later Frame & Canvas). The EP’s cover– a white-on-forest-green sketch of an extension cord wrapped around a window sill and a trumpet – is one of the more iconic images of emo’s first artistic acme, underlining the home-spun quality of Braid’s idiosyncratic aesthetic.
5.) American Football – American Football EP (1998)
Unfortunately (but perhaps understandably) overshadowed by the vaunted critical reputation of the minimalist emo trio’s classic full-length, also titled American Football, the band’s debut EP is a fine piece of Midwestern indie romanticism in its own right. Rougher-around-the-edges than the LP, and a tad less confident in the trickling spaciousness that would define songs like “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional,” the American Football EP is nevertheless a fascinating look at a wholly unique band honing a remarkably singular aesthetic. Second track “Letters and Packages” hints at similar melodies on “The Summer Ends,” sounding like a compelling first draft, but the gorgeous, shimmering “The One With The Tambourine” is actually one of American Football’s most beautifully evocative, youthful songs, a quick, radiant daydream of passing adolescence.