Northeastern England’s water supply must be littered with caffeine. Sunderland’s Futureheads, Newcastle-Upon Tyne’s Maximo Park, and the peptide bond that links the two, Field Music, seem to be nothing if not bursting with nervous, jittery energy. Perpetually wired (in the Pink Flag sense as well), these bands have returned a much-needed anxious post-punk sensibility to Britpop after a long and bloated coke binge brought on by the likes of dinosaurs-before-their-time Oasis. Yet, while that spunkiness is present in each band, they all have a different take on it. While the Futureheads sound the most “punk” and Maximo Park reach for the most anthemic heights, Field Music opts for subtler charms on their debut, finally seeing release in the US with three bonus tracks.
Field Music have a handful of singles to their name, but they’re not as immediately punchy as “Apply Some Pressure” or “Decent Days And Nights.” Often opting for less fuzz, more piano and the occasional string accompaniment, Field Music keep it catchy, but not without a certain pastoral air wafting through the new wave tendencies. Debut single “You’re Not Supposed To,” which was not included on the original UK edition of the album but included here, begins with lush Beach Boys-like harmonies before transitioning into a lushly-arranged pop symphony reminiscent of Skylarking-era XTC.
The proper album singles, meanwhile, sound more like earlier XTC, if you’ll excuse the repetition of the same reference point. Opener “If Only the Moon Were Up” jerks back and forth between two octaves until the chorus changes pace with an unusual, Syd Barrett-like vocal harmony of “taking apart the dark/the moon is up.” “Shorter, Shorter,” just shy of two minutes, is wonderfully minimalist, starting and stopping between slow chugs of a single chord until the strings take over. “You Can Decide” is the real hit, two minutes of mid-tempo Costello-inspired pop with the repeated refrain, “make up your mind/make up your mind.”
Field Music’s singles, as good as they are, aren’t so much the songs that truly set the band apart from their peers. Their real prowess is displayed best on songs like “Tell Me Keep Me,” with its falsetto vocals and typewriter percussion, the graceful and lovely “It’s Not the Only Way to Be Happy,” the psychedelic and soaring “17,” or the stark “Got to Get the Nerve.” Field Music doesn’t just rely on hooks and harmonies to build their sonic landscape. Though they’ve got hooks and harmonies aplenty, it’s the shifts in volume and speed, the unusual arrangements, the space between notes and the refusal to rely too heavily upon any one device that makes them such a unique find.
Amidst the strings and piano, syncopation and weird approaches toward “conventional” pop music, Field Music manages to keep that hyper-caffeinated energy going for 40 minutes. And though the constantly changing arrangements might make it seem like too lush of an affair, the opposite tends to happen more often. Field Music knows when enough is enough, and in their simpler moments, that means just barely enough. That slim, slender sensibility just may be what makes it work so well, preventing the band from ever indulging on the level of so many Radiohead Juniors.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.