Album review: Field Music – Field Music (Measure)

For fans of Sunderland’s indie pop masters Field Music, the two-plus years since their announced hiatus felt like anything but.  Scarcely a year after the January 2007 release of Tones of Town, co-founder David Brewis released an album under the School of Language banner.   That was followed up in August ’08 by the self-titled debut of brother Peter’s project, The Week That Was.  To confuse matters even further both albums were only nominally solo efforts, as each brother contributed to the other one’s disc.

So while I greeted the news of Field Music’s official resurrection as a musical concern with enthusiasm, it was hardly a shock.  I’ll just chalk the whole hiatus thing up to artists needing to be artists, and leave it at that.

All of which brings us to the first proper Field Music record since the aforementioned Tones of Town – a self-titled affair that’s been unofficially subtitled Measure by the brothers themselves.  To me, a self-titled record that’s not a debut usually signals one thing above all else: “Forget everything else we’ve released, we’re going to record whatever pleases us and if you don’t like it then go pound salt.”  Depending on the act involved this can either be a blessing or a curse.

At the risk of overstating things, Measure is by and large a blessing.  Over the course of 20 songs and 70 minutes the brothers Brewis (original member Andrew Moore is absent, making the band essentially a duo with backing musicians) have crafted a work that builds on their strengths whilst stretching out in interesting new directions.  It’s not a uniform success, but such lengthy albums rarely are.

Like many double-length records, Measure is absolutely front-loaded.  After the somewhat dark and off-kilter “In the Mirror” opens the album, the pure pop bliss of “Them That Do Nothing” arrives and showcases the brothers’ seemingly effortless gift for melody and damn tight songwriting.  The rest of the first half has plenty of familiar sounds for Field Music aficionados, from the chamber pop of “Measure” to the chugging, XTC-inspired New Wave of “Effortlessly”.  Elsewhere, tracks like “All You’d Ever Need to Say” feel like a much brawnier take on band’s debut album.

Of the first ten songs, the cuts with the most staying power (other than “Them That Do Nothing”) will likely be the herky-jerky, percussive “Clear Water” (featuring some of the best vocal harmonies on the record) and the intricate, funky, and keyboard-driven “Let’s Write a Book”.  Piling layers of handclaps and xylophones/glocks on top of multi-tracked vocals, guitars, and keyboard flourishes, it yields one of the album’s biggest pleasures.

The second half of Measure, sad to say, is more uneven.  “The Rest Is Noise” is a winner, with the sort of rock dynamic reminiscent of The Week That Was.  It feels, morever, like part of a large song cycle, a lot of which is decent but not particularly remarkable.  This of course brings us back to the whole self-titled album dilemma.  If the first half of Measure feels like a proper followup to the prior album, then the second has the feel of a bonus disc.  That’s not to say there are any real throwaways, just that the rewards aren’t as immediate and some of the ideas sound a little underdeveloped.

Still, it’s for the best that these songs are included since among them is “Something Familiar”, a gem of a tune in the mold of “Give It, Lose It, Take It” from the last album.  I’m guessing the title isn’t mere coincidence.  It’s easily the standout song of the back half.  “Share the Words” only suffers in comparison, but works great as a penultimate track.  It’s one of many songs on this album that call to mind the best work from Doves – solid melodies laid on top of really good rhythm parts.  It must be something in the water over in jolly old England.

Finally, there’s the only truly indulgent track on Measure, “It’s About Time”.  It’s nearly ten minutes of city soundscapes with a brief instrumental introduction, and you’ll probably be hard-pressed to intently listen to it more than a few times.  On a ten or 11-track album its inclusion would be unforgivable, but with so much other good music in front of it I’ll once again just let artists be artists.

Field Music (Measure) is out now on Memphis Industries (different sites have bonus tracks listed).  The band is touring both sides of the Atlantic this winter/spring, and you can find dates on their MySpace page.

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