Field Music makes this kind of non-flashy indie-pop that tends to be critically well-received but gains traction with a much smaller (if still fiercely loyal) group of listeners than you might expect. Why is this? Maybe it’s that the type of language we use to describe their music—harmony-rich; variety of instrumentation; expectation-defying songwriting—is vague enough to fail to convey these songs’ essential appeal. Maybe that’s why Field Music quietly lived in the shadow of sharper, more riff-heavy North Country comrades the Futureheads and Maximo Park in 2005 and 2006. This despite the fact that Field Music is smarter, longer-living and more continually engaging than both News and Tributes and A Certain Trigger. I don’t know if I have the descriptive powers to convince you to invest the time in the band’s new album, Tones of Town, to agree with my evaluation of all the riches on offer here—but if you’re feeling patient, feeling open-minded, you could find yourself with a new mini-obsession.
This has been one strong theme in the response to Field Music’s debut: a significant investment in terms of time and repeated listens is necessary before Field Music’s full appeal unfolds itself. This is coiled pop, which is another way of saying it doesn’t use instrumentation or melody in obvious ways: lyrics are emphasized by time-shifting, marcato emphasis, and don’t follow a regular pop arc that rises from the tonic to peak and fall, predictably, homeward at phrase’s end. So, sophisticated: but you have to have faith at first, because the band often doesn’t seem the tremendously insightful poets this kind of music is often associated with. With no great lyrical insight, you might ask, is Field Music still worth it? Of course the answer’s yes, since pop music always finds something more than the sum of words + music.
Tones of Town is better than the group’s debut. Not by a radical change of direction, but by the addition of small elements: a beatbox breakdown in “Sit Tight”, a environmental noise introduction in “Get It Lose It Take It”, a swirling synth coda in “She Can Do What She Wants”. But these new experiments are carefully layered over what the band already did well the first time. Prime among this: the marching-rhythm vocal delivery that comes to be a comforting signature, as Anthony Kiedis’ funk delivery is for Chili Peppers fans.
“In Context” is the first single, and has been praised for its disciplined structure, its familiar vocal effect and lush arrangement reinforcing the new wave/pop blend that Field Music’s all about. “A House Is Not a Home”, selected as the second single, is a radical shift from “In Context” but not from the tone of the album as a whole. And it works completely, a classic orchestral pop stomp, driven by the flourish of a bending guitar at the end of the refrain that gets interrupted as the song progresses; kind of Architecture in Helsinki-esque, turned very British. But there are plenty of other highlights over the course of the album, from “Sit Tight”‘s aforementioned breakdown to mellower moments of true beauty, like the synth arpeggio/string accompaniment on “Kingston” or the gorgeous, almost Classical minimalism on “A Gap Has Appeared”.
At first, the compact songs on Tones of Town exist and then are gone. But it’s Field Music’s strength that after a short time, this music finds a way of affecting the listener in a subtle yet deep way. The laid-back aesthetic will mean some won’t have the patience to come to appreciate this intricate, covered pop—not a judgment, just an observation. And of course some may invest the time and still find the band unexciting. But Field Music is not courting anyone, and in the process refuse to compromise their vision of what a song can communicate. The result: understated beauty wrapped in post-punk clothing. Though they’ve not completely abrogated themselves of the inevitable Futureheads comparisons, Tones of Town is a definite step forward, and an assertion that, yes, this band is worthy of the long haul.