The EP is back (again)

The heyday of the four-track mini-album was the 1960s, but it has never gone away, says Chris Mugan
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Zach Condon faced a quandary as he planned the follow-up, set for release next month, to his second album, The Flying Club Cup.

As leader of US band Beirut, Condon had introduced a new generation to the exotic Balkan strains that inspired him. Now he was set to unveil his collaboration with a Mexican funeral band and he also had a set of synth-orientated tunes.

His answer? To release one album made up of two EPs – "extended plays" – March of the Zapotec (with the Mexicans) and its electro-pop sister Holland. His decision is another step in the rehabilitation of the format.

Only last week, Bon Iver gave a full release to Blood Bank, an EP previously only available on tour. Its creator, Justin Vernon, had not expected to spend so much time touring acclaimed album For Emma, Forever Ago, which had mostly been made over three months of 2007 in a Wisconsin cabin. Vernon released it himself before it was taken up by hip indie Jagjaguwar.

That original album was made by Vernon alone and also reflected a traumatic period he had been through – band break-up, end of a relationship and debilitating illness. So Blood Bank is a snatched opportunity for the solo artist to record with his new band and show a more diverse emotional range.

It is a long way from the EP's origins as a standard step up from single to album. In an era when an artist's shelf-life was measured in months, if one enjoyed a couple of hits, then a record company could bring them together with two more tracks. Any more chart success, and the EP could make a mini-greatest-hits package of its own. Such was the format's impact that from 1960-67 trade publication Record Retailer compiled an EP chart.But then EPs fell from favour, to become an awkward orphan between single and album.

The Official UK Charts Company has collated sales of those formats since the late Nineties and counts a single as having up to four tracks and 25 minutes in length, a similar dividing line to that in the US. Still, the EP has never really gone away and was first revived in the punk era. As the DIY aesthetic took hold, artists saw the format as a means to show off their talent without investing in the labour and cost of laying down a whole album's worth of material. Its return was marked in 1976 with the Buzzcocks' four-track Spiral Scratch, which showed a group could record and release its own music without the aid of an established label.

As 12in records became the norm towards the end of the decade, EPs became established as a kind of single release, much beloved of indie and alternative bands to show they were more serious than the manufactured fodder that dominated the pop charts.

In their early years, it was the format of choice for My Bloody Valentine, as they inched towards their trademark dense, euphoric sound and the deal with Creation Records that would give Kevin Shields the funds to record, as far as possible, what he heard in his head. Among their most studious acolytes, Oxford-based Ride would release four tracks rather than simple A and B-sides to show their breadth, as on the debut, eponymous release that encompassed the white noise of "Drive Blind" and the tuneful "Chelsea Girl".

Only a year before, Happy Mondays first impacted on the pop charts with the Madchester Rave On EP that featured the memorable "Hallelujah" amongst some of the group's more dance-orientated material.

With more than four tracks, the EP became a mini-album to showcase a one-off project or collaboration, just as Jay-Z and Linkin Park did with their mash-up record Collision Course. They worked on tracks that incorporated parts of each act's original work and reached No1 in the US album charts in 2004. Since then, the EP has declined in importance as the download and internet have taken precedence. Nowadays the singles chart is dominated by literally single tracks.

White Lies, currently topping the album charts with "To Lose My Life", are one of many young bands happy to revive the 7in format that only requires them to chuck out the odd B-side or remix. As for four tracks being the measure by which a group defines its style, ethos or subject matter, well, there is always the internet. Acts nowadays can simply stream music from their website, post tracks on their MySpace page or even film short videos for YouTube that give fans an intimate and instant idea of where they are coming from. Yet despite all that, the EP seems to be enjoying something of a revival.

Last October, Antony Hegarty marked his return after I Am a Bird Now won him the Mercury prize with the low-key Another World EP, precursor to the long-awaited The Crying Light, out this week. With its five tracks, the retiring leader of Antony and the Johnsons avoided the single charts. Other artists, though, muddy the pitch by rolling their EPs into existing albums, as Coldplay did with Prospekt's March.

This is not a criticism that can be levelled at Cat Power, who celebrated Christmas with Dark End of the Street, essentially outtakes from her covers album Jukebox, including a lovely take on Sandy Denny's "Where Does the Time Go". The immediacy of the download age and accessibility of recording, the humble EP lets passionate artists send postcards from exactly where they are at.

Bon Iver's 'Blood Bank' is out now on Jagjaguwar Records

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