AM/FM – The Sky is the New Ground EP

The Sky is the New Ground EP

Being completely honest, I would have to admit that the great majority of EPs, unless they happen to feature either absolutely essential, ‘A’-quality tracks (which they usually don’t) or the work of one of my four or five favorite artists, ultimately hold little appeal to me. As it’s generally just about impossible to create an essential piece of art with four to five songs, most EPs come off as a third of an album, either leaving the listeners wishing they had the other half or glad that they didn’t have to sit through another 20 minutes of it. For most, with such a short sampling of material, the results are inconclusive at best. Still, for bands such as AM/FM who have the benefit of riding a wave of critical hype, an EP can provide a crucial link in their progression as a band as well as telling evidence to confirm whether they truly are as noteworthy as their early work has suggested. Following their near unanimously lauded sophomore release, Brian Sokel and Michael Parsell certainly have a considerable reputation to work with, but they are in the position where simply repeating themselves could prove counterproductive, where one inferior release can cause the band to tumble into immediate irrelevancy.

Given that they are only working with four songs and slightly over 17 minutes of material, it’s somewhat surprising that the band chooses to open the album with a short instrumental that creates atmospheric context through simple acoustic guitar strumming paired with airy synths and subtle background noises. No doubt, such a track is nicely conceived and entirely appropriate in setting the textural temper of the album, but given the short distance the listener has to travel, it would seem to be much better suited for a longer effort, as it effectively reduces the number of fully rendered songs on the disc to a rather thin three. The following “Gone in Three” wastes no more time getting to the meat of the album, however, with three minutes of sun-bleached falsetto and hazy harmonies, coming off like a slightly less psychedelic Beachwood Sparks. Nice enough, but little new ground is broken for the band on the two tracks.

With the appropriately titled “Mrs. Astronaut,” the album takes a dramatic turn, venturing into new territory for the band. Opening with cheery waltz-time acoustic guitar strums and flighty vocals, the song veers off and is submerged under a crescendo of guitars, only to recede back into a light-hearted waltz. Again, the track disintegrates into careening guitars, backwards cymbals, pounding rhythms, and space noises, eventually settling into an unexplored third passage that brings that near revelatory rejoinder of “Dear wife, I’m sorry to be / Not the man you expected of me” – a fitting coda to a song that feels more like a short story. The finale, which opens with three and a half minutes of ahh-ing synths before sliding into a din of laser beam guitar lines and faint drums, creates a compelling post-shoegazer update of mid-tempo fuzz pop.

Ultimately, The Sky is the New Ground is consistently enjoyable, but it comes off with mixed results. Some of the tracks, while entirely listenable, aren’t terribly essential and end up feeling a bit like window dressing to place around the majestic “Mrs. Astronaut,” although that track alone nearly justifies purchase of the disc. Still, the album does meet many of the qualifications for EPs of this sort, as it does chart the progression of the band into a new theater of sound, while simultaneously offering proof that they’ve fully mastered their previous muses. More importantly, it more than provides the listener with compelling reasons to believe that AM/FM’s next release might even better their previous highs. All in all, the release may not herald their arrival among the ranks of the absolutely essential skyward looking bands, but it proves that they’ve got the tools at their disposal to reach similar heights.