Album Review: Field Music – Plumb

By on Friday, 17th February 2012 at 2:00 pm
 

Emerging from the post-millennial resurgence of North East guitar music that also gave us the Futureheads, of which Peter Brewis was a founder member, Field Music continue to plough their own distinctive furrow several years later. With Maximo Park taking an indefinite break and new pretenders to the North East crown like Frankie and the Heartstrings and Beth Jeans Houghton emerging into the mainstream, Field Music are a reassuring, almost elder-statesman presence, and 2012 could well be their most fertile year yet, seeing the release of their fourth album, and a national tour that kicked off with two sell-out dates in Newcastle.

‘Plumb’ is an elegantly constructed album full of miniature delights: wistful vignettes of thoughtfulness and loss, only occasionally punctuated by more meaty pieces which could justifiably call themselves fully-grown songs. However, even the shortest pieces pack in more musical themes and complex arrangements than many albums manage over their entire running length. Not a second is wasted; no sooner has the album started do the complexities present themselves: a musicologist could define the arrangement of the opening track ‘Start The Day Right’ as ABCBCBDC; such a bald technical summary is obviously inadequate to describe the brief beauty of the track, but it does help to communicate the songwriterly depth on offer. Immediately we are treated to delicate xylophone, swelling strings, the trademark Field Music chromatic guitar figures, and of course broad Wearside accents.

Four songs but only just over 5 minutes in, second single ‘A New Town’ heralds the first of the longer pieces. There’s an unmistakable water-bubble sound by way of introduction, which can be interpreted as the sound of blowing into a Coke straw, sucking on a shisha pipe, or enjoying a relaxing bong, depending on your social background. Nevertheless, it features throughout the song, and achieves an unsettling backdrop to the music; rather a clever strategy, and hints at the “found sound” sampling which is so prevalent in ambient electronica. A similar tone continues in the lyrics, which document a crumbling relationship on the verge of collapse, and ponder whether a fresh start could rescue things. A brave choice for a single.

Newcastle is literally heard in ‘A Prelude to Pilgrim Street’, with its chiming clock and pedestrian crossing beeps recorded on location in tribute to the Tyne-Bridge-to-Northumberland-Street thoroughfare, which carries plenty of history but currently has its best days behind it, being mostly a derelict mess nowadays. In its urgent, ticking arrangement, dreamlike lyrical imagery, and thumping ’70s drum tone, this could be a lost B-side from Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ sessions.

To continue the neo-retro tone, the album implies two distinct sides, and would benefit from being played on vinyl: made easier by its LP-friendly running time of 45 minutes. The second half starts with ‘Who’ll Pay the Bills’, possibly the most overtly political piece on the album, yet still pretty oblique. Ostensibly, there is plenty of political content here, but it is sufficiently disguised by artifice as not to be obvious. This is both a benefit and a disadvantage: overtly political statements can often alienate large chunks of one’s audience; however musicians are in a powerful position to comment on and even influence the political process. As it is, ambiguity is chosen over partisanship.

Nothing outstays its welcome, indeed several of the shorter songs leave you wanting more, and wishing they had been developed further. Yet everything hangs together as a piece; there’s enough detail to keep even the most fervent, cerebral listener occupied for some time, as the album reveals its subtleties. Two of the finest tracks appear just before the end: ‘From Hide and Seek to Heartache’ is as good a paean to loss of innocence as has ever been committed to tape, and ‘Just Like Everyone Else’ – possibly the best track here – is a spaced-out, reverb-laden mid-tempo masterpiece, referencing early Fleetwood Mac in its bluesy guitar, and potentially heralds a new, more relaxed direction. More of the same, please.

Throughout the album there’s a nagging sense of loss, bleakness, and a desolate end-of-the-road finality. This is reflected in some of the song titles: ‘So Long Then’, ‘How Many More Times’. There’s clearly something on the minds of the Brewises; it’s a tribute to their songwriting that’s it’s never obvious exactly what. A troubling thought: if there was going to be a last Field Music album – and many thought that the hiatus that brought about the brothers’ individual solo projects in 2008 was the last we’d heard of them – then this would be the way to end things. But let’s set aside that depressing thought for now.

Not afraid of assertive techniques like hard panning, it’s great to hear long-lost production sounds make a comeback in such a contemporary album. There’s plenty of double-tracked vocals, and the thudding drums are spectacular – a sound once thought lost down the back of Nigel Olsson’s drum stool circa 1975 makes its long-awaited return here. Musically, the sound of late ’60s and early ’70s British songwriting looms large, seasoned with a sprinkling of New Wave. The influence of the Beatles is probably almost too obvious to mention in the harmony vocals and documentary lyrics, but I’d be very surprised if one or other of the brothers hadn’t heard and loved Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s autobiographic pinnacle Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy; ‘Plumb’ sounds comfortable in the company of such strong examples of the grand tradition of English provincial songwriting.

Quite what it is about Field Music that asserts such passion is a complex question: certainly most of their songs are not immediately hummable; but perhaps its a tribute to their fans that such complex, cerebral guitar music is so popular. The utter antithesis of the three-chord trick and tired quiet-loud arrangements, the ongoing success of Field Music proves once again the listening public’s hunger for intelligent, well-thought-out guitar music.

8/10

‘Plumb’, the new album from Field Music, is out now on Memphis Industries. You can watch Field Music playing ‘(I Keep Hearing About) A New Thing’ live in session for the Guardian at the end of this post. Suggested listening companions are as follows (accompanied by Spotify links):

The KinksThe Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society

10ccHow Dare You!

Milky WimpshakeMy Funny Social Crime

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpaAtZQeNnQ[/youtube]

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