I love new beginnings. Sure, they can be scary, nerve-wracking and anxious, but they can also be life changing. While I may be talking about a new beginning in my own personal life, I am also talking about the clean slate that comes with a new year’s worth of music. All of the detritus of the past year is left behind, all the best songs and albums tabulated, compiled and examined ad nauseum. All that remains is a vast open horizon of the great music to come and new sounds to explore. And yes, there will be those bands and albums that will get more attention than others, the ones that created buzz the time before and hopefully will again, but it’s the bands that truly surprise us that catch our collective fancies. While the Andrew Largemans of the world are waiting on pins and needles for the next Shins album, there’s another band, sometimes compared with them, who has a sophomore album released on the same day. It probably won’t sell as many copies as Wincing the Night Away, nor get as much press, but for my money, it far exceeds it in quality. I’m talking about Field Music’s Tones of Town, and chances are by the end of the year, I won’t have stopped talking about it.
Sunderland, England’s Field Music debuted in 2005 with a self-titled album that got tagged with the word ‘subtle’ more often than not as it was nearly lost amidst a hubbub of brash cockney new wave including Maximo Park, the Rakes, Franz Ferdinand, Editors, and Field Music’s ‘parental’ band, the Futureheads. One thing that can be said about Field Music’s second effort, it’s definitely not subtle. “Give It Lose It Take It” begins with sounds of a café, dishes and conversation intermingling into overlapping notes until the driving riffs kick in. Then we discover the real strengths of Field Music. Take Paul McCartney’s songwriting at its peak, toward the end of the Beatles’ reign; combine it with XTC’s dramatic power pop, the lush harmonies and orchestrations of Brian Wilson and the overall mass appeal and cohesiveness of the Police. You can hear all of this purely in this first track. The brilliant thing is that it’s only the beginning.
“Sit Tight,” the second track on the album, even manages to squeeze in, yes, a human beatbox. Violins and castanets dot the landscape of the title track, but none of these secondary sounds overpower the spectacular arrangements and harmonies that make this a stellar album. “A House Is Not a Home” is the perfect example of a song that could even make Macca and Ringo do a double take at each other and mouth, ‘did we do this?’ “Kingston” and “Working to Work” follow, and show their release date mates, the Shins, how it should have been done. “In Context” finds Andrew Moore and the brothers Brewis firing on all cylinders, absolutely gorgeous vocals accompanying crisp Wire or Police era guitar and drum mastery.
Just when you think it couldn’t get any better, this trio continues to astound with “A Gap has Appeared.” Piano and violin combine in a way not heard since The Magical Mystery Tour. A Queen-like vocal harmony transitions that song into “Closer at Hand,” yet another gem on an album that absolutely sparkles with many of them. This last song finds Field Music with another weapon in their arsenal, the incredibly infectious sing-along chorus. “Place Yourself” features such sweet and bouncy keyboard flourishes that you’d swear you were listening to ELO. The album closes with “She Can Do What She Wants,” a track that is so good, it leaves you whimpering for more. It is more proof positive that there is not a single misstep on Tones of Town.
Tones of Town is a near flawless record, the absolute exception to the mythical rule of the ‘sophomore slump.’ So, yes, Tones of Town can stand alongside The Bends, Pinkerton and Return to Cookie Mountain with pride. Field Music took what made their first album so good, removed the ‘subtlety,’ and then improved upon it a hundredfold. I really had to dig to find something about this album I wasn’t particularly happy with, and what I came up with is fairly miniscule, especially in this day and age. Almost gone are the days of the CD with its jewel case and artwork, even longer absent is the LP with its even larger, more decadent covers. With the rise of the mp3 and the iPod, album covers mean less and less, which is maybe why I didn’t really put much weight in the fact that the cover artwork for Tones of Town is simply terrible. Unfortunately, that album cover image doesn’t quite live up to the music within, but then again, neither did the White Album. I’ll make you a guarantee. While you’re out picking up the new Shins, dole out the dough for the new Field Music as well, and I’ll bet that you’ll be playing the latter far more than the former.
Video: “A House is Not a Home”