In Brief: I wish more musicians had EPs like this, that were so amazingly good despite most of it being material that didn’t make the cut for an album.
Sometimes you stumble across a band that, in a short period of time, you go from never having heard of them to not being able to get enough of them. This was me when I discovered the music of Paper Route last year. They seemed to be a contradiction in terms – an electronica act that puts on a great live show? With highly danceable tunes that are mostly about relationships gone sour? And they’re from Nashville? On paper, none of this sounds like it would work, but on disc, they hit all the right notes for this listener, and I was sad that their debut LP Absence was the only full-length record in the group’s catalogue thus far. While that’s about to change at some point this year, my hunger for more hit after only a few months of playing Absence incessantly, so it was good fortune that I stumbled across one of the group’s EPs in a used CD store during a trip to the Pacific Northwest last summer. Are We All Forgotten, released in 2008 as a whistle-wetter for the then-upcoming Absence, may have an exactly identical version of a song I already knew as its title track, but it also offers up four B-sides that stand among the group’s best work. That may not sound like much for a group that has only one album, but since every single track on that album was unbelievably solid, I think it’s significant that even the material that ultimately got cut from the album can hold up extremely well in comparison. Long story short, Are We All Forgotten would have been a good buy even at full price – and I almost never go to the trouble of tracking down EPs from even some of my long-time favorite bands.
1. American Clouds
Much like Absence‘s “Enemy Among Us”, the opening track on this EP subverts expectations by starting out slow and spacious, though there’s noticeably less gloom and more optimism here than in “Enemy”. While rather minimal on the lyrical side of things, this track is a musical flight of fancy, starting off with fluttery keyboard sounds that remind me of something Boards of Canada might have concocted, setting a beautiful tone but warping the melody with an unexpected keychange at the end of each stanza just to throw you off ever so slightly. This turns into a hypnotic vocal melody when J. T. Daly and Andy Smith start singing. Drummer Gavin McDonald knows when to hold back and when to swing for the fences, bringing in loud, crashing bass drums and cymbals at the break after the second verse, sending the song into a glorious freefall even though each successive smack! is spaced widely apart. Chad Howat‘s programming flutters throughout the whole thing, with Andy’s harmonica (yes, harmonica in an electronica song, and it totally works!) bringing the song to a glorious close. Ironically, this beautiful piece reminds me of Canada rather than America, since I first heard it during that vacation on one of the four days out of my life so far that I’ve actually spent outside of United States territory (Victoria, BC to be specific). But I’d like to think that it would put beautiful pictures in my mind no matter where I had first heard it.
2. Are We All Forgotten
It’s hard to think of things to say about the EP’s centerpiece that I didn’t already say when reviewing Absence. That album was so strong that this track actually felt like one of its “merely good” offerings – it may be because it’s surrounded by such a wonderland of sounds that I never gave it a fair shake. But even on this EP, it’s probably my least favorite track and still a solid song, with the drums and bass whipping up some wicked syncopation as a man basically shakes his fist at the sky, telling God “Don’t you break my heart, don’t you break my heart again”. It’s one of the band’s most directly spiritual songs, though not something that fits comfortably into the “Christian rock” scene due to its admitted struggle between faith and doubt. It’s interesting to me that I never really noticed the electric guitar being strummed so fast that it sounds like it’s about to fall apart, but that speaks to how well the combination of programmed and live instrumentation works – you can focus entirely on one aspect or the other and generally still feel like a complete song could be built out of it if the band had to perform unplugged, or if they had to make music with nothing but a laptop.
3. Empty House
Now things really get fast and furious. Amidst clattering drums, there’s a high-pitched synth sample running throughout this song that feels like it’s ever-so-slightly behind the beat, so the song has this odd feeling of being catapulted into motion, and yet being sad and dilapidated at the same time. It fits with the lyrics, which match a desperately crooned verse with a sullen, low-key chorus that simply states “Somebody’s at the door. I don’t believe we live here any more.” It sounds like it’s a plea sent out to someone who has already checked out of relationship – maybe nobody’s physically packed their bags, but their time spent in that house together feels hollow. It would almost be less painful for it to be empty. “The bottom line was that I couldn’t change your mind, honey could I?” one of the guys repeats as the song comes careening to its inevitable end.
4. You Kill Me
The emotional centerpiece of this brief EP is one of those tracks that puts a stranglehold on your heart and doesn’t let go. If Absence was about dealing with the lingering reminders of a departed lover, then this is the song that puts us right in the thick of that relationship’s disillusion, exposing a husband and wife’s conflicted feelings at the breaking point when they have to decide whether to stay and work it out or cut and run. There are so many elements here that feel like a pastiche of other Paper Route songs, some of them probably not written yet at the time of recording – the melody is similar enough to “Are We All Forgotten” that I can see why one or the other might have had to go, and there’s a solemn, ambient lead in and also a calm break in the middle right before a percussive breakdown that collectively remind me of the Absence standout “Last Time”. There’s even a string section break, that while busier than the strings in “Lover’s Anthem”, reminds me of its melancholy tone. This’ll be a hard one to swallow for many listeners, I suspect, as the group pulls no punches in exposing the couple’s most troubled thoughts: “When we rang the wedding bells/Should we have been with someone else?/Is that what you really need?” Despite the looming doubt, there’s a part of this man who can’t let go, who still feels a kernel of the beautiful relationship they once had, which only seems to torture him more. You can decide whether to interpret the last line of the chorus as “I can’t stop loving, you kill me” or “I can’t stop loving you, kill me” – and you can decide which interpretation is more harrowing. It’s not all hopelessness and looming shadows, though – the melody soars above the rocky computerized landscape, and the song ends unexpectedly on a glitchy breakdown that finds our protagonist repeating the mantra “Everything I am/Everything I’ve been/My heart’s the same as yours/I love you the same.”
5. Waiting for the Final Leaf to Fall
The EP ends with this slow, stuttering drum march, marrying a glitzy minor key melody that reminds me of the early 80’s when a dude with a quirky voice plus a dude who could sing like a girl plus a keyboard constituted a band, while also throwing in a git of glitchy distortion to remind us that this is the 21st century and Kid A totally happened. I rather like how this group’s influences span multiple decades, even if I didn’t fully appreciate the earlier end of that equation the first time around. This song, while sad in its tone, is full of anticipation, the seasons progressing ever so slowly as time marches on, leading to hopefully happier days ahead. I sometimes wish there were a little more to this song than its repetitive rhythm, its melody-free breakdown in the middle eight, and its cold, sudden ending, but where melody is present, it is quite lovely, reminding me once again than Paper Route does minimal as well as they do maximal.
Well, it feels like Side A of a record just ended, rather than the whole thing being over, so it’s hard not to feel like these five solid songs were but a tease, especially knowing what a brilliant album came in their wake. I’m hopeful for Paper Route’s future, even though I’ll admit to worrying that the departure of Andy Smith late last year might irreparably change the formula. Hopefully the remaining members and/or anyone new that they might bring in will find a way to retain the quality craftsmanship that brought such great songs as these to the table.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
American Clouds $2
Are We All Forgotten $1
Empty House $1.50
You Kill Me $2
Waiting for the Final Leaf to Fall $1
J.T. Daly: Vocals, keyboards, percussion
Andy Smith: Vocals, guitars, harmonica (no longer with the band)
Chad Howat: Bass, piano, programming
Gavin McDonald: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.