Sunderland smoothies

Field Music are ready to soft-rock
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  March 17, 2010

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SIGN O' THE TIMES: Field Music's peculiar admixture of post-punk rhythms, proggy instrumentation, and radio harmonies is suddenly safe for hipsters.

Sunderland Rock City: Field Music's fertile home turf. By Eugenia Williamson.
"Them That Do Nothing" is three minutes and nine seconds of arresting pop rock that wallops you with perky little guitar jangles, fascistically taut drums, and thrillingly well-placed handclaps — equal parts Wings and Wire. It is at once an ironic and a soaring anthem to the diminished expectations our English brethren are conditioned to accept, and it's been in constant rotation on 6 Music, the BBC's benefaction to the aging indie-rocker set.

The track is found near the beginning of Measure, a double album out last month from Brit indie label Memphis Industries. The band behind it, Field Music, are a four-piece from Sunderland, the same part of Northern England as the Futureheads. (See "Sunderland Rock City," below.) Measure's melodic prog and rambling virtuosity have made it a critical favorite everywhere from the blogs to NPR.

Five years ago, you could hardly have imagined this sort of attention for Field Music's peculiar admixture of post-punk rhythms, proggy instrumentation, and radio harmonies. In a way, they're part of a larger movement that embraces and skews the once-verboten territory of the smooth. Grizzly Bear's unapologetic worship and unique interpretation of the Doobie Brothers helped hipsters the world over to reinstate smooth's musical value. Thus primed, the indie-listening American public — in spite of years of conditioning to the contrary — was ready for a melodic, string-heavy, immaculately produced double album.

To put that another way: Field Music are easy to enjoy. Rockist pedigree aside, they seem almost soft-rock-radio-friendly. When you're feeling cerebral, their mannered production and far-flung influences can be fun to parse, but you can always just clap along.

Tones of Town, their sophomore effort and Measure's predecessor, came out in 2007. Critics praised its complex texture and rightly (if predictably) saw its tuneful intricacy as redolent of XTC, but I loved it for its gleeful nonsense harmonies and its generous debt to Hall and Oates's Private Eyes. Although Field Music didn't become a household name, Tones of Town got enough recognition to warrant a far-reaching tour. And then the band went away.

"Touring the US almost finished us off," says Peter Brewis, who with his brother David forms the core of the band — they share songwriting, production, and many instrumental duties. He's speaking to me from Dublin, where Field Music are about to headline one of two shows in Ireland before decamping to the States (and a Sunday show at Great Scott). Although Brewis is not enthusiastic about touring in general, his tone becomes particularly fraught when he starts talking about the US. Their last time out, he and his bandmates supported Portland's Menomena on a three-week cross-country tour. It sucked.

"Nobody was there to see us," he sighs. Audience partisanship aside, Field Music had the task of translating meticulously multi-layered tracks into a three-piece live act. This did not go well, even when they were accompanied by string musicians from Juilliard. "We're two brothers trying to entertain ourselves and have a laugh in the studio," he continues, explaining Field Music's recording methodology. "We have to pretend to be rock musicians."

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