Nothing divides opinion like prog. Some lap it up; others despise it; few just “tolerate” it. Field Music, which is a distinctly average name for the partnership of David and Peter Brewis, are often mistaken for prog, but this doesn’t quite hit the mark: prog is dogged, and riffs on the same theme for an extended period of time before veering into a new and sometimes unexciting direction. Field Music may explore a diverse range of instruments and textures and genres in their work but, by contrast, they are restless, skitting from sound to sound like schoolboys let loose in a sweetshop.
The Brewis brothers, who are Sunderland natives and wear their small-town heritage proudly on their sleeves, last released an LP in 2010: Field Music (Measure) was an expansive double album with a second half heavy on bucolic ambience which was sui generis compared with their previous work. The first half was at once more familiar, but also steeped in the shock of the new—more swagger in the guitars on “Each Time Is A New Time”, more seduction in the Princely funk of “Let’s Write A Book”. It was weird, didn’t really work in a live setting, and I loved it.
Seventy minutes versus thirty-five. That’s the first thing that hits you when you look at …Measure’s follow-up, the obtusely titled Plumb. This new release is half the size but bristles with energy, engaging with snippets of moods and scenes across its fifteen songs, which run the gamut between forty-second interludes to three-minute pocket epics. Field Music refuse to settle, as evidenced by their inter-album transformations, and also by the intra-album prevarication which typifies Plumb.
“I want a different idea of what / Better can be that / Doesn’t necessitate having more useless / Shit.”
Lyrically, they’re certainly on more well-worn terrain, exploring the minutiæ of drizzly, transport-laden, indecisive England. There are lyrical sighs on this album which could power entire episodes of Countdown, Antiques Roadshow or Look East. Love is always unrequited, and any anger (“My generation are opting out of choosing sides”, from “Choosing Sides”, is at once fed-up and wistful) quickly dissipates into a wave of deference.
But one mistakes this cosiness for inertia at one’s peril: thematically, there is definite progression from previous Field Music releases. For example, the questioning song-titles (“Who’ll Pay The Bills?”, “Is This The Picture?”, “How Many More Times?”) speak of generational dissatisfaction and a sadness at the age of austerity. It’s not a universal proclamation that “Modern life is rubbish”—in fact, the brothers’ view of society is far more nuanced, and tinged with pleasant anecdotes.
The social commentary may put Plumb in the realm of Gang of Four and XTC, but the scope of styles, tempos, time signatures and textures skated over evades comparison. Compositionally, the album is frequently dazzling and broad. To consider just one exotic pairing, the rousing and punkish final track, “(I Keep Thinking Abou) A New Thing” is preceded by three minutes of bruised krautrock, “Just Like Everyone Else”. Elsewhere, we find homemade found sounds competing against crisp and intricate beats (as in “A New Town”—see top of article) and, in general, there is a great deal more variety than the electric piano fallback of old. The sweetshop analogy rings true, with assiduous selections of stringed instruments, obscure keyboards, and the occasional mournful tuba.
There are also moments of supreme tenderness—as in “A Prelude to Pilgrim Street”, which could have soundtracked one of those awkward scenes in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the stately”So Long Then”—which is not an emotion associated with either post-punk or prog. But tenderness does lie at the heart of what Field Music are really about: sweet pop music, refracted into a thousand disparate pieces.
Duffers are harder to ignore in a thirty-five minute song-cycle, compared with the odyssey that was Field Music (Measure): “From Hide And Seek to Heartache” quickly wears on the listener, for one. But this remains an album of understated brilliance; seldom showy, there is always a treat of a three-part vocal harmony or an elegant string arrangement just around the corner. It might be an album that you initially admire, and eventually love. How long that journey takes is probably an English settlement.
- Choosing which side of the plumb-line (misplacedswag.wordpress.com)
- Becker’s band of Brewis brothers (misplacedswag.wordpress.com)
- ‘We earn five grand a year’ (guardian.co.uk)
Plumb by Field Music was released on 13th February 2012 by Memphis Industries.