(Memphis Industries; 2010)
By Peter Hepburn & Scott Reid | 10 July 2010
Huh. Despite the string of quality Brewis brothers records that precede and distinctly inform Measure, nearly all of which we’ve already already hyped around here, we honestly didn’t see this one coming. For a while we literally didn’t see it coming—it wasn’t at all clear after going on hiatus in 2008 that Field Music would make a third album, especially after the successes of Peter and David Brewis in their solo projects (The Week That Was and School of Language, respectively). More generally, though, this doesn’t seem like the sort of album that Field Music would produce. Where those previous two efforts were rigorously constrained exercises in pop minimalism, Measure is a sprawling, engrossing mess of an album. A double album, at that; even in scope it seems like an extremely uncharacteristic choice for the pre-“we’re sick of ourselves, see you in a few years” Field Music, which, all things considered, is probably the point.
The best songs on their self-titled debut (2005) and Tones of Town (2007) could feel like toy boxes, every mechanism perfectly timed and every motion executed in lock step. They were enormously clever and catchy songs, but the effect was somewhat dry on repeat listens. Measure is by no means less calculated expertise, but it’s definitely looser and, beyond just its intimidating length, a significantly riskier venture. Having learned how to land their punches with force and finesse, the Brewises seem inclined to hold them back as much as possible or at least find novel new ways of connecting, both showing palpable growth since indulging their side projects. This is, fundamentally, a stronger and more ambitious band making stronger and more ambitious music. As such, where previously the struggle was to get past the uniformity of their prim and precise pop, Measure‘s biggest conceit is the sheer extent to which the Brewises challenge their audience to stick with the onslaught of tangents. The payoffs are certainly there, but, especially in the more laid-back second half, they aren’t made easy for us.
There are cheap hooks in here, too, of course—a pair that can manage the sort of vocal harmonies that you get on “All You’d Ever Need to Say” would be crazy not to take advantage now and again. But for the most part the real heart of Measure is in its murkier, weirder passages: the dreamy middle section of “Each Time is a New Time”; the long, jittery build of “Lights Up”; the drums-and-synth outro of “All You’d Ever Need to Say” into the mutant marimba funk of “Let’s Write a Book”; the rhythmic exercise of the first half of “Choosing Numbers”; the Pink Floyd drawl of “You and I”‘s verses; it goes on. On a track-by-track basis they subvert expectations about what they can do with a pop song, where each can effectively go. The first time through it doesn’t make sense for the rousing “The Rest is Noise” to veer off and close with a gorgeous half-minute of twinned guitars, but, like most of the initially baffling choices here, on repeated listens it comes to sound just about perfect. (Exception: glorified segue “See You Later.” Is that really supposed to be a plane taking off as the song kicks in?)
It helps that throughout Measure the band—now also including Kev Dosdale on guitar/keys and Ian Black on bass—sounds phenomenal. This is a top-order headphone album: the bass is rich and rounded, the guitar tone jaw-dropping at points (check the range on “The Wheels Are in Place” or that George Harrison section on the misleadingly-named “Something Familiar”), and the drumming is flawless throughout. As always, the rhythm section is consistently crisp and complex and imaginative, a significant part of what makes this glut of meticulously crafted pop worth returning to—especially on the more riff-heavy songs like “Effortlessly” and late-album highlight “Share the Words.”
So, yes, this is a tough album to take in all at once. Counting the ten minutes of field recordings at the end it’s longer than their previous discography combined. It also covers far more stylistic ground than their other two releases, and while there are immediately engaging songs like “Them That Do Nothing” and “First Comes the Wish” tucked away on here, they are few and far between. It’s a willfully difficult record, I guess is our point, but indie pop is a genre that could stand to be a bit more difficult in this sense—not shunning what came before so much as skillfully moving it forward in self-assured strides, their marked drive for originality backed by the technical prowess to pull it off. With Measure Field Music put themselves to the test for the first time, really set themselves up to fail big, and in the process deliver an exceptional culmination of five years’ worth of growth—together and apart—that’s well worth the effort it demands from us in return.