What I Listened To When I Listened To Music This Week – John Murry – Califorlornia

What is the point of EP’s?

Ok so that is a strongly loaded question when you are about to review one, but just what are they for?

What even constitutes an EP? Well according to the official chart company, longer than a single, but less that 25 minutes with no more than 4 tracks, but we won’t be quite so pedantic here. Generally these curiosities are served up between albums, or before debut albums and carry no lead track.

So what’s in it for labels? Best case scenario, you might be able to take it on tour, earn a few pennies, and the worst case? Expensive vinyl only runs, of that most obscure 10” Vinyl variety that doesn’t fit neatly into anyones collection, in my case see Hope Of The States brilliant Blood Meridian EP sticking out like a soar thumb in my 7”s or lost in the middle of a stack of 12”s, never quite finding a home of it’s own. A series of tracks, that wouldn’t fit on any of the artist’s previous work, and can go a long way to put anyone off their next full length effort. Review sites won’t touch it, because they don’t know how to review four tracks. It’s not got enough depth to be an album review, and who reviews singles anymore? Waste of everybody’s time!

Well, not always, there have been some great ones over the years. Sometimes an EP can be the perfect format for an artist. A wonderful sense of freedom to experiment and try something new, outside the pressured environment of the public demand for another full length album. Indeed some artists never manage to top their EP’s. The Sleepy Jackson’s magnificent self titled EP was far more interesting than any of their long players. Yeah Yeah Yeah’s art-punk, condensed down to the 5-tracks of that stunning debut EP, arguably never sounded as good again. Would Fleet Foxes ever be where they are today had Mykonos not wowed the entire world on their stunningly good Sun Giant EP?

So I guess that’s the point of an EP; a condensed snap shot of a band that shows just how good they are, and just how good they might just remain. A perfect format? Certainly not, but one that can be done perfectly.

On his beautiful and brutal debut album The Graceless Age, John Murry sang about both his upbringing in Tupelo, Mississippi and his current life in Oakland, California. Itis fair to say he wasn’t entirely delighted with either place! On California he famously sang “there’s a knife in every back and one in every hand, but I swear it ain’t you, it’s California I can’t stand”. Judging from the title of his new E.P. it’s fair to say Murry hasn’t mellowed his opinion of The Golden State. Though he did admit the EP could just have easily been called Misseryssippi, before Tupelo thinks it has got off lightly.

That said maybe it’s not all bad, he has for the second release in a row at least named a song after his home from home. Golden State, the second track here, starts off life as a blues rock stomper, before going all psychadelic on us, it ends up sounding not unlike Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, which is quite the departure for John. Lyrically, it is more what you would expect, there’s “bullet cases bouncing off the ground” and Murry demands that we “fuck getting it right, and just get it done”. It lacks the emotional hit that much of The Graceless Age carried, but the dreamy psychadelic outro is wonderful, with a harmonica wailing away in the background, John’s voice is set against gorgeous harmonies, as a low slung bass carries the whole thing along. Throughout, the musical pallet is broad, typically brilliant electric guitar playing, backed by electronic squelches, country tinged slides and an utterly gorgeous sounding keyboard, most likely a Rhodes. It’s arguably the worst song here, but it’s still very good indeed, and shows the adventure of the man.

Genius is a stunning cover of the track written by Warren Zevon. Musically it’s a complete remodel, taking the funk, classical, r&b mash up that was Zevon’s bizzarre and brilliant original, and twisting it into something that is classic John Murry. Heartbroken croaked vocals over a background of scuzzy guitar lines and choppy piano chords. It is a wonderful re-imagining and works beautifully, perhaps part of the reason behind the success of the cover is the lyrical similarities between the two men. The odd thing is how much Zevon’s words fit with John’s previous work. It’s all girls who done him wrong, brilliantly reminiscing about the first time he saw the girl “coming out of the barber shop, in a skimpy little halter top” before latterly noting “you and the barber make a handsome pair, guess what I never liked the way he cut your hair.” Throughout the track he plays the unappreciated, working class hero, to the “genius” girl who uses “ivy league voodoo”, listens to Miles Davis, and “breaks his heart into smithereens” even though he was “the one who always told you, you were smart.” It’s a brilliant example of what can be achieved with a well judged cover version.

Glass Slipper is a track that has been in the Murry live set for a little while now, musically it’s a proper alt-country number, straight from the Whiskeytown playbook. Gentle lead guitars meander around the fret board, backed by scuzzy strummed chords and beautiful piano playing. Whilst John’s voice is not a classically stunning beast, it’s used perfectly and works a charm here; it croaks and cracks with emotion. The sad parts sound heartbroken, the angry moments screech with pure frustration. He talks of a “war that’s never over until it’s won” and it sounds like he’s fighting war against everyone and everything. Murry “doesn’t want to see your face, unless you’re coming over” and latterly screeches with frustration at life itself “I don’t wanna live, I don’t wanna die, I don’t want to have to pick a side.” The metaphor of a “heart made of leathers, cured too long in the sun” has a wonderful dark humour about it, he’s an artist with a put down, only perhaps Nick Cave can match him.

The closing track, Timmy, is a tribute to Murry’s former producer, and ex-drummer with both American Music Club and Sun Kil Moon, Tim Mooney. Tim was also the subject of a wonderful song by Mark Kozelek last year, whilst I won’t pretend it makes his death less tragic, there must be some comfort in the beautiful music his untimely passing has inspired. Timmy is as brilliant as it is moving. A gently lilting acoustic guitar, and beautiful, tinkling, reverb heavy, xylophone introduce the track, before piano and bass join the vocal and lift the song perfectly. There are hints of Wilco, Mark Kozelek, and Ryan Adams here but if they are big names, John’s every bit worthy of their company, and he proves it here. The songs ends with the musicians gradually, dropping down, a beautiful blast of angelic backing vocals, then just John and a piano as he repeats the tracks most memorable line, “orphaned by love, now the angels above, refuse to pass over, hands still stained with your blood” as the final piano chord rings out. I’ve always been a sucker for a moving tribute to a friend, but this is honestly as heart-felt and wonderful as anything you’ll ever here.

If at 4-tracks and 17 minutes long this EP is nowhere near as long as I’d like it to have been, in all other aspects it’s everything you could possibly want. Gentle progression, beautifully judged, varied without being directionless, you could argue it is the perfect EP, it is certainly a very good one.


Califorlornia is out now on Rubyworks on vinyl and digital download.

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