Field Music are a very “English” band. Sure, they’re FROM England, but as with so many other bands, that doesn’t automatically dictate what they sound like. It takes a certain style, a certain panache if you will, to make your sound country-distinctive. Beirut tends to do the sound of Eastern Europe justice. Vampire Weekend take on African-inspired pop and are somehow able to get away with it, as Paul Simon did. So with that same sort of trend, Field Music tread heavily in the realms of Britpop and more traditionally stuffy (yet catchy) arrangements. That hasn’t always been the case. 2010’s Field Music (Measure) had the band returning from a hiatus to an engaging 20-song double album that displayed a newfound confidence and looser arrangements than ever before. They also took trips down much more guitar-heavy and psychedelic alleys, which worked to their benefit by keeping you guessing over the course of 70+ minutes. Now two years later, the brothers Brewis are back with Plumb, a 15-track excursion that finds their confidence still intact but their urge for experimentation and expansion falling by the wayside.
The boys in Field Music probably think that they’re still taking risks and innovating, as listening to Plumb that seems to make sense. Orchestral swells, tracks bleeding into one another like one continuous thread, and a few cheeky sound effects are all things they’ve never done before or have done very little of before. Here’s the thing about that though: it’s a new coat of paint on the same wall. Remove those small bits and it’s the same band that made Tones of Town in 2007. They’ve even brought quite a bit of piano back into their arrangements after going largely without it on Field Music (Measure) due to Andrew Moore’s departure from the band. The band has stated in interviews and press materials they wanted to return to the much more angular and non-traditional songwriting of their first two albums, but with a modified and updated perspective that pulls influence from 20th century film soundtracks. Surprisingly, that’s an accurate description of what they’ve done on Plumb, though the film soundtrack references are a little come and go. That is to say from the kick off “Start the Day Right” and bleeding through “It’s OK to Change” and “Sorry Again, Mate” things move smartly, swiftly and with a symphonic bent. Upon the arrival of “A New Town” four tracks in, the band is instantly back in standard mode, ignoring the elements at work in the songs before it. When “From Hide and Seek to Heartache” shows up at track 11, the band suddenly “remembers” what they set out to do for another couple songs. “How Many More Times?” is an effective 40 second a capella experiment while “Ce Soir” would have made for a mournful closing number, though in many respects it sounds unfinished itself. Alas, the record continues for 2 more songs and 6 more minutes, just to get the total running time over the 30 minute mark.
Sometimes you need a couple of pop songs to play through the closing credits, and “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing” finally puts Plumb to bed. What’s a little ironic is that it’s the record’s first single and one of its best moments. You need to slog through quite a bit of musical nonsense to get there, and you’re left wondering why the entire thing couldn’t have been that good. Not that there aren’t a few Field Music highlights to keep an eye and ear out for. In spite of how it ruins the experimental mojo generated by the tracks before it, “A New Town” is a solid and one of the more engaging Field Music songs in recent memory. The dramatic dynamism of “Guillotine” fares best on this album though, the verses almost hushed with light acoustic guitar picking and subtle bass matched against the explosive and catchy chorus. The obtuse “Is This the Picture?” is framed in excellent fashion too, with the Brewis brothers trading off falsettos amidst some weaving finger picked electric guitars. Beyond those few highlights though, Plumb is plum out of luck. It may be admirable the band wants to experiment with traditional song structures, but most of the tracks just fall flat when there isn’t a chorus to latch onto or are just plain unmemorable when there is one. The good news is that the record’s best moments are almost evenly spaced across its 15 tracks, meaning that if you listen straight through it won’t be more than a few minutes before another gem comes along. In a perfect world (or a perfect album) of course, they’d all be gems. It’s easy to speculate that maybe if they had held onto the film soundtrack theme for the full album or if they’d tried a few more stylistic shifts like their last record then all would have turned out better. Alas, there’s no sense in arguing about what could be, only what is. Try as they might, Field Music just don’t quite have it this time around.