Saturday, March 10, 2012

Field Music's "Plumb:" It's Bigger on the Inside

Towards the end of February, most teachers are looking forward to Spring Break. For me, however, the time leading up to the break was bittersweet and tempered with anxiety. The week before the break, my middle school band competed in the UIL Concert and Sightreading contest. For a superior rating, the students have to exhibit that inexplicable confluence of instinct, feeling, detail, and tradition that we sometimes bundle within the catchall term “musicality.”

I have the sometimes daunting task of teaching students to access their musicality. It can be taught superficially through description and imitation, but ultimately, it is cultivated in an inner awareness through practice and reflection. Some argue that there are levels of musicality are the result of talent and instinct, and therefore just can't be taught. I don't fully ascribe to this theory, but some musicians do seem to have a natural ease that is perplexing. One such case is David and Peter Brewis, the creative core of the band Field Music. On their newest release Plumb, they push their musicality even further than on their 2011 favorite Measure, perhaps with no limit in sight.

Field Music’s sound bears an undeniable resemblance to XTC, a band that I usually backhandedly describe as “clever.” Field Music is far, far beyond being merely clever. Like that classic 90s band Jellyfish, the Brewis Brothers have incredible chops and a distinctive musical concept, but these qualities are always employed in service to the song. At times, their musicianship rivals that of 70s prog stalwarts like Gentle Giant and Happy the Man, but their distinctively English emphasis on accessible melody allows them to avoid holding the listener at arm’s length. For lack of a better term, Plumb could be conveniently described as "prog-pop."

Plumb is a bit short, but it’s like the TARDIS – it’s bigger on the inside. It seems mathematically impossible that fifteen two to three minute songs should fit into its half-hour running time, but not a moment is wasted. Although Plumb’s stream-of-consciousness exploration of power pop is certainly nonstandard, it is certainly not non-sequitur or random. There is a connection and flow to its vast array of ideas. The experience is a bit like listening to the second side of The Beatles' Abbey Road, when several succinct tracks miraculously cohere into a singular statement. My only complaint is that using the single track (I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing as the closing song sort of lacks a feeling of finality. Still, if I ever wrote a song half as successful as this one, I would be pleased to put it anywhere.

The kind of musicianship found on Plumb probably can’t be taught. It’s far too creative to be learned in an academic setting. It can, however, be learned through experimentation and reflection after a certain musical foundation is established. These basic concepts could take many forms, but once in place a musician can potentially bootstrap themselves into unique and idiosyncratic musical expressions. I would be beyond proud to find out that one of my students had the initiative to eventually find a creative outlet like Field Music.

They will, however, have to make it through contest first.


  1. Thanks!
    You know, I don't think we're so many miles from your students - we had our years of learning through imitation and then we've had our years of shedding some self-consciousness and of experimentation and reflection (in fact, I hope we're still in those years).
    I'm glad that in all of those years when we were callow and naive (and our ideas were mostly derivative egotism) that we kept on writing and recording and making more music even if it wasn't very good!
    Thanks for the kind words about the record
    David (from Field Music)

  2. I thought about you earlier this week, because I do believe the young musicians of Nevada were doing their competing at UNLV. Forgot what all of that was like. Sometimes I really miss it (and other times, I wake up from nightmares about showing up to compete after having forgotten to practice... for years). It's interesting to hear about how it is from your point of view, now that you're the teacher. Thanks for helping mold the children of tomorrow. Feels better knowing that SOME of them are in good hands.