Field Music is the only band I’ve ever gotten into through discogs. I went through an extremely short phase where I really wanted to have my record collection cataloged, and this led to an even shorter phase where I thought about becoming a record collector instead of a record purchaser. This led down a strange rabbit hole of messaging discogs users about NM- copies of shoegaze albums and learning that yeah the record is actually supposed to ship outside the sleeve.
It was during this minuscule dalliance with discogs that I came across Field Music’s second album, Tones of Town. I had never heard of it before. I had never seen it. But people wanted a lot of money for it. Even if it had surface scratches! I had to have it too, so that I too could have it.
I did some digging. I wasn’t going to buy an album just because it had an unfamiliar cover and people wanted to throw $15 worth of shipping costs at it. Ultimately, I was sold when I read someone describe the group as akin to a modern day XTC. Now there’s a group I’ve wasted some good money on! All my checkmarks were checked. I was good to go.
I ordered a different one instead. I got their next one. I don’t know why I do the things I do. It was probably cheaper. No, it was definitely cheaper, or I wouldn’t have bought it. The take away is that the record I got was not a modern day XTC. By the time the one I did get, Measure, came out, Field Music were becoming the band they are today. XTC they are not. They aren’t anything, really, except Field Music, which is to say that they are a lot of things.
Field Music are two brothers plus many other non-siblings. They have, more than most bands of their ilk, a sound. I don’t mean they have a goose honk they put in all of their songs, though I do believe they’d find the right spot for it each time. I more mean that Field Music are very recognizable, even at a distance. This album cycle I’ve been digging into some of their side work, and it led me to the album Honey & Tar by The Cornshed Sisters. It was produced by Field Music man Peter Brewis, and it sounds like Field Music despite being played by four English ladies instead of two English mans. This, I think, is a testament to what Field Music have going on. Or, it suggests that Peter Brewis is kind of a pushy producer.
Regardless, they have a sound and it’s a good sound. I find it hard to describe. Let me try to describe it in two ways: in the usual music review style (featuring many insane sentences filled with hyphens and nonstop adjectivizing) and in a more personal tone. First, the music review style:
Field Music play an angular mix of post-punk, math-rock, indie rock and folk music. Their albums combine a succinct sense of songcraft with wild diversions into soul-referencing harmonies and prog-influenced time signatures. Their members met in such and such and played together under the name something something until the year 2008, when they convened at some studio for the groundbreaking Mealed Fusion EP, which changed the face of post-revivalist power pop forever.
In a more personal sense:
I listen to Field Music because their music will not sit still. I’ll bet these guys could write a Smile sequel and have it turn out pretty ok, but they never would. They never let their songs sit in that way, they never let two elements get too chummy with each other. Their voices are soulful without sounding like soul music. Each song is a pop song run through a cheese grater, each melody is a classic ripping apart at the seams. I talk a lot about friction between musical elements, and Field Music do it better than anybody.
Open Here has all of these elements but it is not going to be fetching the high prices on discogs at any point in the future I don’t think.
It feels more compartmentalized and less wild than their other albums, even Commontime, their overly-long previous album.
That puppy opened with “The Noisy Days are Over,” an incredible sorta-Prince tribute that also functions as a heartbreaking (or heartfelt, depending on your mood) little look at getting old and forgetful. Open Here begins with a similarly funky jam named “Time in Joy,” but it feels like a retread. The friction also feels a little too strong; “Time in Joy” might as well be a piece of sandpaper with all the grit rubbed off. Sure it’s funky, but is it fownky? The fluting flutes argue that no, it is not.
The rest of the album is more compact, more political. “Count it Up” is a lecture on privilege, which is not really one of my favorite musical genres, but the main riff sounds a lot like the riff from John Linnell’s “Idaho” which is one of my favorite songs so I’m going to give it a pass. Still though, it’s a disconcerting shift in focus. “Count it Up” is certainly the worst offender as far as clumsy political songwriting goes here, but “Goodbye to the Country” feels obvious in a way that their music never usually does. I go into Field Music albums expecting to be surprised at every turn, but there’s very little shock to the more overtly political songs. They are straightforward, with no friction at all really! I’m left unchafed.
But then there’s an absolute burner like “Checking on a Message,” which is easy to take politically if you want but you don’t have to and I’m not going to because I love when Field Music do this thing where they focus in on one little subject, one little action or conversation, and extract molten empathy from it. This is “Checking on a Message,” which has as much nervous energy as its protagonist.
This puts Open Here in a weird place. It doesn’t feel much like progress, and the things that set it apart feel uncharacteristically blunt. But it’s still a Field Music album, which means, as discussed earlier: it has that sound. And I love that sound a lot. They even turn it down to 2 or 3 on the closer “Find a Way to Keep Me,” and it still works! It also sounds like a Belle and Sebastian song, but this is not something to complain about. When one of these guys produces a Belle and Sebastian album, it’s going to sound magical.
Field Music’s Open Here is an extremely British record. I don’t mean to say that it’s a single artistic statement that can occupy a singular place for all of the Isles and their plethora of subcultures and subcultures of subcultures. I merely want to say that, as far as records go, Open Here is as British as Brexit, fish and chips, the first five seconds of Yes’s “The Fish” and all nine minutes of a live performance of “The Fish.”
There are songs on this album that scream Fragile. There are moments where I expect Peter Gabriel to spin me a yarn about whatever the hell “Carpet Crawlers” is about.
I’ve read comparisons to both the Talking Heads and the Beatles, and they all make so much sense. There’s also the subject matter, which, I’m told, recontextualizes via obtuse jazzification the pre-Brexit British rock and roll for a post-Brexit British world.
As a music blogger of decidedly American roots, it’s something that’s pretty difficult for me to speak to. I’m on the outside looking in when it comes to the contexts that led to Open Here; obviously, we’ve got our own messes here to sort through that bleed in and out of the music world. That said, of course something insane like the upending of fifty years of economic order is going to be jarring, even to the notably less insane world of jazz-inflected art rock.
The environment that created Open Here was the politicized aftershock of Brexit, at least according to the reviews circulating around this album cycle. Certainly “Goodbye to the Country” pulls no punches as to broadcasting where the Field Music brothers – David and Peter Brewis – stand on that issue. Neither does the three-minute privilege check “Count it Up” or the spunky socioeconomic reality check “No King No Princess.”
Musically, however, the threads to follow dig a little farther back than 2016’s headlines. Like I mentioned above, there are so many comparisons that can be made to the prog rock and art rock of yesteryear. From the neo jazz instrumentation that colors Open Here’s corners to the record’s David Byrne punch, it almost feels like Open Here is as much historical fiction as it is an art pop translation of 2018.
Rather than catalog all of the sonic references, it might be more economical just to pitch a few of the highlights where Field Music’s historiography really shines through. “Count it Up,” one of the album’s lead singles, is the song that skirts the closest to the Talking Heads singles that people mention in relation to Open Here. The vocals flirt with the same blue collar preaching that made classics like “Once in a Lifetime” so convincing, with the same instrumental burps and drum machines of Little Creatures.
The title track, meanwhile, really shines a spotlight on how much the Brewis brothers might still pull from the Beatles. If someone tried arguing that “Open Here” was a millennial’s answer to “Eleanor Rigby,” I couldn’t disagree. It’s Open Here’s strongest “if only George Martin was here” moment, though the sunny denouement “Find a Way to Keep Me” makes a strong retort.
How these sounds blend and carry Field Music’s rather blunt politics is a little more questionable than the nostalgia they muster. “Count it Up” is maybe funkier if you don’t think about how direct and bludgeoning its pontificating is, and it’s hard to really enjoy the rich storytelling of a song called “Goodbye to the Country.” Field Music is maybe less Elvis Costello and more Phil Collins when it comes to political edge.
Bless Field Music for ending on an operatically optimistic tone, though. “Find a Way to Keep Me,” the instrumental closing Open Here, sounds like the backtrack for “Here Comes the Sun” cranked to a sunny eleven, with a lush orchestra playing off a dancing flute and an angelically bright choir. “Find a Way to Keep Me” is how childhood cartoons would end their mandatory musical episode, and if hand-in-hand cartoon characters singing at the sunrise is the future Field Music wants to paint, who am I to argue?