Why Field Music's 'Plumb' Should Win The Mercury Music Prize

Sunderland’s prog-rockers Field Music have produced an uncompromising creative tour de force with their new album; its intricacies and untempered imagination make it my pick for the award...
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Sunderland’s prog-rockers Field Music have produced an uncompromising creative tour de force with their new album; its intricacies and untempered imagination make it my pick for the award...

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After producing their spiralling, drawn-out double album Field Music (Measure) in 2010,David and Peter Brewis- who together form Field Music- felt instinctively compelled to create its structural antithesis. The result is the compressed, fragmented, initially disorientating yet ultimately enduring masterpiece that is Plumb. The album is not currently considered one of the favourites for the Mercury prize, which, given the recent history of the competition, surely makes it one of the favourites. This year’s shortlist is filled with potentially worthy winners like Richard Hawley, Michael Kiwanuka and Alt-J, but for its uncompromising creative integrity and imagination I truly hope Plumb takes the prize. Given their commitment to the local Sunderland music scene that has also spawned contemporaries The Futureheads, you get the feeling the Brewis brothers would have the freedom of Wearside were they to emerge victorious, and rightly so.

So, the album…

The opener 'Start The Day Right' starts the album right, interweaving seemingly discrete sections with a meandering riff that loosely ties the song together. This composition style continues throughout much of the album, as it becomes clear that many of the 15 tracks are separated quite arbitrarily, each possessing a handful of musical nuclei that could easily have been developed into full tracks in their own right. Indeed, such a project was realised in the 70-minute previous record Measure, but for Plumb, the Brewis brothers consciously set themselves the challenge of condensing their array of ideas into an album with fewer, shorter tracks.

 Peter Brewis’ main guitar riff strips the adopted style to its root notes- funk in this case- with the effect sounding like a serious Flight Of The Conchords song

Another magical Field Music bitesize portion, 'Sorry Again, Mate', travels from its plodding guitar intro into a breezy verse reminiscent of the Danish alt-rockers Mew, before reaching a beautifully delicate crescendo that sounds like Mike Patton’s 'Mr Bungle' on a comedown. Influences from Pink Floyd and latter day Beatles appear and reoccur throughout Plumb, but mainly in the form of their uncompromising prog-rock stream-of-consciousness sensibility rather than overt references or outright rip-offs (other than one section in 'Guillotine' using slide-guitar effects straight from the Dave Gilmour toolkit).

'A New Town' distracts from its true intention with a slow organ-laden intro before slipping into a shoulder-jerking funky rhythm. The mood of the line ‘I’m stretched like a nylon wire, panic in my body’, backed by nervous funk guitar, resonates deeply. As is his way, Peter Brewis’ main guitar riff strips the adopted style to its root notes- funk in this case- with the effect sounding like a serious Flight Of The Conchords song, which I genuinely intend as a compliment. Funk remains on the album's agenda, and is stepped up to the next level in the breakdown of Who’ll Pay The Bills?

To invoke a common cliché used for all good albums, Plumb really does take you on a journey

Field Music also like to toy with time signatures, syncopations and accents with reckless abandon, most noticeably in 'Choosing Sides' and 'Is This The Picture?' This is led by both Brewis brothers' precise and expansive drum patterns, with percussion used as a prominent creative feature throughout, adding another layer to be enjoyed upon further visits to the album. Indeed, the synergy between the two brothers- who seamlessly switch between guitar, drums and vocals between tracks- is noticeable, as is the fact that they created the album together without external influence and are the only official band members, employing Andrew Lowther and Kevin Dosdale only as tour members.

To invoke a common cliché used for all good albums, Plumb really does take you on a journey. Its mood shifts with the unpredictable spontaneity of a teenager with borderline personality disorder, enticing you into each loop of its emotional rollercoaster through its pure quality and the love that has clearly been invested in its conception. 'So Long Then', for example, winds through a beautifully uneasy piano section and then unexpectedly jerks into an upbeat refrain before once again drifting into a strange melancholy. If you want a nice easy ride, it’s fair to say this album probably isn’t for you.

The central theme of the album which (eventually) emerges is an idea crystallised in the last track 'I Keep Thinking About A New Thing', which was released as the first single prior to the album’s release- probably for this exact reason. The theme is… well, it’s complicated… as in the theme itself can be described by the mantra ‘It’s Complicated’ (a possible album title alternative). In an interview with Faceculture, David Brewis spoke of the album as relating to questions, and how the answers to these questions cannot- and usually should not- be attempted to be answered through music because they are invariably too complex to be distilled into functional lyrics. Instead, he thinks, music can effectively describe and evoke feelings related to questions, like, for example, the frustration and anger at unemployment levels in North East England.

Field Music’s outright rejection of musical trends and the notion of fashion in general, to me, only enhances their appeal and worthiness for the Mercury prize

So 'I Keep Thinking About A New Thing' is a song that attempts to explain that answers to questions should not be explained through music because complicated ideas can’t be explained in song format. Right… It’s all rather ‘meta’ and self-consciously paradoxical, and can certainly be accused of pretension  but I for one really quite enjoy this ambitious, uncompromising stance and think both its logical and artistic substance are rarely encountered in contemporary music.  Stand out lyrics include ‘I don’t want to simplify it, eloquence is overrated, a pretty tool to neuter you’.

On the subject of ‘contemporary’, Field Music’s outright rejection of musical trends and the notion of fashion in general, to me, only enhances their appeal and worthiness for the Mercury prize. Both brothers even look 'anti-fashion', more resembling office dwelling middle managers whose wives buy their clothes for them from M&S than aspiring rock stars. Probably most will disagree with me but I feel like there is too much emphasis placed on the ‘contemporary sound’ in the music industry at present. Previous Mercury winners The xx provide a good example: although many people wholeheartedly loved their debut (as well as their latest release), I always felt like something was missing. Ultimately I think that they created a great contemporary ‘sound’ (stripped back, laid back and very cool) without any major songwriting substance. While I would never accuse the likes of Alt-J, Michael Kiwanuka, Jessie Ware and Ben Howard of failing to possess much in the way of depth or talent, I do think that their sound has been more filtered to fit with the idea of ‘contemporary’. Alt-J, for instance, are clearly a fantastic band, but sound a little ‘current’ for their album to age well through the decades.

The album is filled with sonic gems that reveal themselves gradually like small intricate patterns spread throughout a colourful canvas

Whether or not Field Music are your musical cup of tea, they can never be accused of allowing their creative vision to be in any way mediated, distorted or channelled towards any particular demographic. In the same interview as above, Peter Brewis responded to the suggestion that in their previous album they had ‘committed commercial suicide’, saying that they would never intentionally sabotage their commercial success, but that they could always ‘get run over by a bus’ as they simply don’t factor in the industry when producing music. This insistence on creative purism is so strong that it palpably shines through in Plumb; the process loss from the brains of David and Peter Brewis to the mp3 I’m listening to right now is so minimal that its purity is a pleasure to witness.

Accessible this album is not, but for someone like me who gains no greater aural pleasure than when exploring a richly woven, thoughtful tapestry of a record, Plumb hits the perfect pitch. The album is filled with sonic gems that reveal themselves gradually like small intricate patterns spread throughout a colourful canvas. Sections of the album that have been meticulously planned come to life sequentially through repeated listens, such is the intense thoughtfulness applied to the album. Come the 1st November, I know which Sunderland based alternative prog rock band I want to win.

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