Rock and roll is based on a few, basic conventions. A handful of simple chord progressions. Repetition. Riffs. A fairly limited selection of instruments. Grab yourself a rhyming dictionary for the lyrics and you’re good to go. This is a winning formula, too – everyone from ZZ Top to Coldplay has stuck to the rules and as a consequence, the guys in those bands don’t have to wait until the January sales to buy their shoes like the rest of us mere mortals. Sometimes, a band will buck the trend and try and do something different with the form. Kraftwerk seem to make decent living, for example, but generally, musicians get their heads down and don’t stray too far from the well-worn path. Unless you’re Field Music, of course.
Sunderland is not world renowned for its music scene, but Field Music are a notable exception. Since 2004, the band, helmed by brothers David and Peter Brewis have made some of the new century’s most interesting music. “Open Here” is the latest in a long line of great albums. If “Plumb” was their breakthrough album and “Commontime” was their “pop” record then this one sees the band take a turn into denser, more cinematic music.
“Open Here” is not an easy listen. You couldn’t really pop this on in the kitchen while you whip up some Spaghetti Bolognaise, as it demands your attention and repeated listens. Persistence pays off – this record is crammed with detail and every time you listen, you’ll hear something new and unexpected. For a good portion of “Open Here”, guitars take a back seat to “proper” instruments -strings, brass and woodwinds are arranged beautifully and play an integral part in the songs – not just grafted on as an afterthought to prop up weedy tunes with a bit of gravitas. Right from the first track, the gorgeous “Time in Joy”, the strings weave around the rhythm section in a very pleasing manner. This slightly more studious approach matches the subject matter – where “Commontime” dealt with fatherhood and growing older, “Open Here” deals with the unsettled state of the planet. The Talking Heads inspired “Count it Up” would be a kind of “Reasons to be Cheerful” for the new millennium if it wasn’t quite so bleak – “If you can turn on the tap and your kids can drink the water, count that up”. Simple and direct, if a little chilling.
Here’s a comparison for you: AC/DC base their songs on riffs. So do Field Music. However, AC/DC will make twelve riffs fill an entire album, while Field Music will use twelve riffs up before you get to the chorus of the first tune on the record. No instruments play in unison, instead parts are layered on top of each other – a technique more common in the works of minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass than it is in rock and roll – unless you’re King Crimson, of course. Guess what – Field Music are big fans of ol’ KC…
The album has its lighter moments – “Share a Pillow” and “Checking on a Message” are relatively straightforward in approach, but with a few unexpected turns just to make sure you’re paying attention. As with all their albums, it’s beautifully – and idiosyncratically – produced. It’s what was called in the seventies, a “headphones” album. The strings and woodwinds sound gorgeous, especially on the title track and the album closer, “Find a Way to.” This track builds from piano, guitar and voice to a soaring, epic climax, before just…stopping. A couple of pieces are less successful – “Front of House” with a central motif which might have come from Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and the skittering drums of “Cameraman” don’t quite hit the spot, but when you have tracks of the high calibre of the pop-baroque “Daylight Saving” on your album, you can be forgiven for the occasional fumble.
Field Music are currently critical darlings, basking in the glow of great reviews. This could mean that in the near future, they’ll get it with both barrels from the music press, which has found some other temporary superstars to champion. That’s hardly new and nothing really changes in the music industry – well, nothing except Field Music. Quietly, carefully and with the utmost precision, they’re subverting pop music right under our noses. And it’s great.
“Open Here” is available from February 2nd via Memphis Industries
The full track listing for the album is as follows…
Time in Joy
Count it Up
Front of House
Share a Pillow
Goodbye to the Country
Checking on a Message
No King No Princess
Find a Way to